Reform to prosecution of abuse

Kara Apland
Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The director of public prosecutions has announced reforms to the way the justice system responds to claims of child sexual abuse, says Kara Apland, socio-legal researcher at Coram Children's Legal Centre

A number of measures are proposed to ensure a consistent approach is applied in investigating child sexual abuse
A number of measures are proposed to ensure a consistent approach is applied in investigating child sexual abuse

On 6 March, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) announced a series of reforms aimed at changing the way the criminal justice system responds to cases of child sexual abuse.

Director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, announced the reforms in a statement to government representatives, charities and campaigners. Broadly, the reforms propose to review and streamline guidance, introduce a training programme, and establish a review process for past decisions.
The proposed reforms come in the wake of high-profile child sexual abuse cases including the Rochdale and Jimmy Savile scandals. While acknowledging that improvements made by police and prosecutors have led to an increase in convictions for sexual offending and the number of cases brought to court, Mr. Starmer noted that these cases demonstrate limitations within the system, such as problems associated with the criteria used to assess the credibility of victims.

If criteria used by prosecutors to determine the credibility of victims had been applied in the Roachdale case – “whether they reported their abuse swiftly, whether they returned to the perpetrators, whether they had ever told untruths in the past, and whether their accounts were unaffected by drink or drugs”– the case would not have been prosecuted. If these criteria are not changed, the result will be that a particularly vulnerable group of victims will be excluded from legal protection. As Starmer put it: “If the criteria for testing their credibility match the characteristics that make them vulnerable in the first place, we have a fundamental flaw in the approach to credibility.”

Analysis of the Jimmy Savile case revealed additional systemic problems. An analysis by Alison Levitt, principal legal adviser to the director of public prosecutions, revealed that although there was no reason to assume that those making allegations against Savile were less reliable than other complainants, “the police treated them with a degree of caution which was neither justified nor required”. The majority of victims had not reported their experiences to authorities until the scandal broke, because they feared not being believed, did not trust the authorities, or assumed the justice system would not effectively prosecute the offender.

The proposals

The package of measures announced by the CPS and Acpo may address these limitations. Proposals to streamline guidelines and policies on investigating and prosecuting child sexual offences, which will be promulgated by the College of Policing, will aim to ensure that a consistent approach is developed and applied. The College of Policing will also prepare a draft policy for consultation by May of this year.

A training package containing practical advice for police and prosecutors who deal with child sexual exploitation cases in practice will be used to address any failures in implementation. Finally, the proposed national scoping panel will review cases that may require reinvestigations, such as past cases in which no further action was taken but are re-raised by complainants. The reforms proposed by the CPS and Acpo are welcome.

It is essential that the criminal justice response to sexual offending addresses systemic shortcomings that allow cases of abuse to slip through the system and offences to go unprosecuted. However, as Starmer’s analysis of the problem of child sexual offending reveals, social factors such as stigma and disbelief of vulnerable victims making allegations of abuse is a major cause of a culture of impunity surrounding child sexual offences.

A strong criminal justice response to sexual offending may help to overcome these social factors. But certain elements of the criminal justice system, such as criteria on victim credibility, may also reinforce vulnerability. It is essential that the criminal justice system supports and empowers vulnerable children. Any reforms to the system should take this as a starting point.

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