Guest post: Despite high-profile acquittals, we're right to prosecute historic rape cases
In the wake of the acquittals of Dave Lee Travis and Bill Roache, the Crown Prosecution Service has been criticised for bringing prosecutions for sexual offences alleged to have been committed many years previously.
In this guest post, Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders defends the decision to prosecute - and says she'll continue to attempt to bring suspected sexual abusers to justice, however historic the cases.
Director of Public Prosecutions
Posted on: Fri 21-Feb-14 13:15:35
(11 comments )
Too many victims of abuse have been denied justice in the past because they were either not believed when they reported the crime or because it was assumed they would not be believed in the courtroom, which in turn led to victims not reporting offences at all. This allowed offenders to escape any consequences and ultimately undermined public confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system to respond to sexual abuse – as illustrated by the Jimmy Savile scandal.
The attitude of prosecutors, police officers and society as a whole had to change; and the old myths and stereotypes that kept suspects out of court had to be tackled. We have risen to this challenge. For example, the outdated belief that a woman’s clothing could be partially blamed for an offence, or that her lifestyle may have invited an attack are, thankfully, no longer valid considerations. But I do not want to see new myths replace the old – as some of the recent commentary risks doing.
And when I say we have risen to the challenge, I am not referring only to the Crown Prosecution Service. Efforts to build confidence, such as Mumsnet's We Believe You campaign, have enabled victims to come forward and obtain justice. No one should underestimate or understate how much has been accomplished in recent years through our collective efforts. Now, prosecutions for sexual abuse – whether recent or not, whether involving high-profile individuals or not – are being brought more regularly and more successfully than ever before.
Prosecutions for sexual abuse – whether recent or not, whether involving high-profile individuals or not – are being brought more regularly and more successfully than ever before.
It would be a huge disservice and injustice to victims if any of this work were to be undone as a result of a small number of properly brought cases in which a jury acquits. I understand – and welcome – scrutiny of the criminal justice process, but the belief that an acquittal means the decision to prosecute was flawed is wrong.
The role of the prosecutor is to consider whether there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction – in other words, whether we think it is more likely than not that a jury would convict. We always apply this standard and any case that falls short will not be prosecuted, but we should, and do, prosecute when the evidence is there. A jury must be sure of guilt and so it follows that they will sometimes properly acquit.
Not being certain of a conviction is not a reason to avoid bringing a case to court and I don’t think the public would want, or benefit from, such a risk-averse public prosecutor.
We are aware of the difficulties with successfully prosecuting sexual offences. Neither prosecutors nor juries will always have conclusive forensic or third party evidence to rely on.
The nature of these crimes means that the accounts given by the complainant and suspect are often the only matters in dispute – and the case comes down to the issue of consent. When we assess this evidence, we must put aside preconceptions and focus on what is being said, not who is saying it. It is right that the trial is the venue for testing this evidence and that the finding of facts is a job for the jury. Of course, we know this can be a difficult experience for victims and we will always support them.
I believe that we are performing our role in this process properly and the CPS will continue with its improved approach to complaints of sexual abuse. I will continue supporting victims and bringing prosecutions when the evidence is there. We are now regularly seeing convictions for offences decades after the event. We should be proud of this remarkable change for the better.
By Alison Saunders
Interesting and compelling argument.
But I think we are years if not decades away from abandoning "but she looked like she was up for it" as a defence in public opinion. And that's before we consider "acquitted means maliciously falsely accused" or indeed "no smoke without fire".
This kind of work and associated campaigning is so so important, and the block on compulsory sex and relationships education covering consent is, in this context, unforgivable.
I reported a historical rape offence (historical meaning it had happened six months earlier) and the result was that I nearly got arrested because the inspectors ended up mounting a whole case against me....
It is even ridiculous given that he was a serial rapist.
Sorry but we are light years away from having fair trials concerning historical offences.
My advice, as a rape and abuse survivor, would be to report them immediately or not to report them at all. It IS a waste of time and you could also get jailed for it. Sorry, not worth it.
Anywhere so sorry to hear that
best wishes for your continued recovery
What an awful story Anywhere, no wonder women are so reluctant to report being victims of rape.
'Not being certain of a conviction is not a reason to avoid bringing a case to court and I don’t think the public would want, or benefit from, such a risk-averse public prosecutor.'
I agree, and it's quite sad that you feel you have to write that. However, presumably the 'reasonable chance of conviction' (is that right?) that the CPS require to prosecute a case is in some ways affected by the general environment? In the same way that the Savile experience has opened up channels of belief that were closed before, leading to more prosecutions, does a series of acquittals start to close them again?
Thankyou for your guest blog. As a witness care officer in a southerly police force it's reassuring to read your post.
I have personally dealt with one historic rape case (uncle on nieces, some offences 10 years old) where the defendant was given an indeterminate sentence. Next week I have a victim of a 15 year old multi-assailant rape and in April an incest case of 2 brothers on 2 sisters dating to the early 70s. We have certainly seen an increase in the reporting of historic offences which I welcome.
These offences have ruined the lives of their victims, one suffers PTSD years later and has only reported because her counsellor finally managed to persuade her that she needed to if she had any chance of moving forwards. It is a difficult enough job to keep victims of these crimes "on side" for the 18+ months that it takes for a RASSO case to finally reach trial, the last thing that we need is for an irresponsible media to dissuade vulnerable victims from reporting these offences. HMCTS, CPS and the police service need to stand shoulder to shoulder and defend our position to continue taking these cases seriously.
And, after all, I think we all know that an acquittal doesn't mean that an offence hasn't happened. Just that it cannot be proved beyond all reasonable doubt.
Some years ago I reported a case of historic abuse, dating back nearly 20 years. It took me that long to feel strong enough to make the report. I was listened to and taken seriously. The police already had concerns about this individual and my report allowed them to arrest him. They found evidence that he was still actively abusing young girls. On the basis of my testimony and those of other girls they were able to contact, he finally got the prison sentence he deserved. Just because it happened a long time ago, doesn't mean you made it up.
I do agree with the DPP but they must be careful that they check the evidence of witnesses very carefully and do not rely on numbers stacking up as being good enough.
In the William Roach case, a witness said she had been raped in the back of his Rolls Royce 10 years before he owned one. This should have been checked prior to the court case as clearly the jury will think this evidence is not believable and then it taints other evidence in a case that is already one persons word against another. This means the people who should have been believed are doubted too. Historic cases must be brought, but they must be investigated fully and the sheer weight of numbers is not good enough to cover up shoddy investigation. Let's hope the Police and DPP do better in the future.
Exactly what Milly said
I would hate to think of victims not being believed but think the CPS have to be careful not to squander the support of the public which was drummed up by Savile.
The evidence didn't seem to stack up properly in the William Roache case and, although I didn't follow it closely, the DLT case seemed to be a series of minor allegations which the "those were different times" defence seemed to counter quite effectively.
I hope this doesn't deter other victims from coming forward
In some cases they are too eager to find the accused guilty, especially if the accused is high profile. I think that is a dumb strategy. Cases should be analysed and judged one by one.
My life was made hell by the police officers after being abused and raped by my ex.
But some police officers disregard abuse and rape in a relationship because you didn't get out of the relationship straight away.
Even worse if you reported everything when you felt ready to, instead of doing it immediately!
How many rape victims would willingly stand that? To be questioned for hours and over many days out of "nonbelieving" attitude?
I even had written evidence. Alas, the crown office said the word 'rape' was not mentioned, it is evident that 'forcing sex on women' is not legally accepted as a definition of rape by the judges.
Secondly, I didn't have third party witnesses. I wonder how many rape victims have witnesses at all.
Join the discussion
Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.Register now
Already registered with Mumsnet? Log in to leave your comment or alternatively, sign in with Facebook or Google.
Please login first.