Director of Public Prosecutions calls for a ‘national consensus’ on how child sexual abuse cases are investigated and prosecuted

On 6th March 2013 Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, announced a new packages of measures ‘intended to change and improve the criminal justice response to sexual offending, particularly involving children.’

In his speech he reviewed the findings of the Yewtree report by the Metropolitan Police and National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which detailed several hundred allegations made against Jimmy Saville that were not reported at the time, and a report by Alison Levitt QC (his Principal Legal Advisor) into a decision the CPS had previously taken not to prosecute four allegations against Jimmy Saville.

Existing problems

From these reports and other consultations Starmer identified a number of shortcomings in the current approach of the police and CPS to sexual abuse cases:

-          The test for assessing the credibility and reliability of victims in sexual abuse cases tends to find them lacking in credibility as witnesses, due to traits that make them vulnerable to abuse or are caused by abuse in the first place, such as use of alcohol and inability to trust people in positions of authority or report intimate details.

-         The police and CPS have occasionally adopted an over-cautious approach to complaints of sexual offences, reflecting a concern that false allegations will be brought that can’t be disproved.

-          The approach to implementing existing guidance has been ‘patchy and inconsistent’.

New proposals

To remedy these shortcomings, Starmer intends to introduce one ‘overarching and agreed approach to the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences, applicable in all police force areas and agreed by the CPS’ to replace a patchwork of existing policies and procedures.  The new approach will be introduced alongside a new training package to ensure ‘that there is no gap between policy and practice’.

He also proposed the introduction of a ‘national scoping panel’ to review, where requested, complaints made in the past that were not pursued by the police or prosecutors.

The national debate

A key aspect of Starmer’s proposals is that the new guidelines be developed in the context of a ‘national debate about the proper approach to the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences.’

This will begin with him and the lead of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), David Whatton, hosting a series of roundtables with parties who have interest or expertise in the field.  On the back of this, ACPO, the College of Policing and the CPS will publish draft guidelines which will be subject to an extensive public consultation exercise.

Starmer’s approach rightly recognises that there is a need for a public consensus on controversial issues relating to investigating and prosecuting sexual abuse cases.

We support Starmer’s focus on two main issues that need attention.

First, how much information should complainants be given about other complainants who might support their case?  Many survivors of abuse believe “they’re the only one,” and feel discouraged from proceeding because they think no one will believe them.  If they know that others have also made complaints about their perpetrator, they will be more willing to come forward and share details.  Of course, divulging information about the identities or even just the existence of other complainants requires balancing the need to support vulnerable victims and pursue investigations against the danger of ‘trawling’ for victims.

Second, how can the credibility of survivors be suitably assessed, when they often carry vulnerabilities that may make them targets for sexual abuse and also make them seem less credible than ‘traditional’ witnesses?  Starmer advocates ‘changing the focus from one that is solely victim-specific to one that more critically tests the suspect as well, while at the same time working harder to explore patterns of behaviour and, where appropriate, links to other cases.’

Starmer’s call for a national debate on these issues is welcome.  Britain needs to work hard to ensure that another Jimmy Saville is not able to go unchecked by a system that has too quickly dismissed vulnerable victims and has not probed carefully enough into common patterns that different complainants can establish about a single perpetrator.  We hope that this study marks the start of a move away from the over-cautious approach that seems to prioritise overblown fears of false allegations over the safety and wellbeing of child abuse victims.