4 February 2015
Originally published in The Guardian
Police stations are not the ideal place for victims to report crimes – particularly rape and sexual offences – according to the former director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer.
Relying on less formal and intimidating locations, even encouraging people to talk to colleagues at work, may help boost the numbers of those prepared to come forward and report what they have endured, he told a legal conference in London.
Starmer, who is a Labour candidate in the general election and is preparing a party review on how victims can receive better treatment from the criminal justice system, also implied that traditional, adversarial courtroom practices may need reforming to reduce the misery inflicted on vulnerable witnesses and victims during cross-examination.
Addressing the Better Courts Conference, Starmer pointed out that, based on the official crime survey of England and Wales, at least 85% of sexual offences are not reported to the police.
“What are the legal mechanisms for victims coming forward? We need to get away from the notion of police stations being where people report crimes, particularly sexual crimes. We need to be more innovative.
“We need to find other places. There’s an initiative in the north-east where employees at a large company have been trained to talk to staff. You might just, in your coffee break, go and see your specialist member of staff – because you are not going to walk into a police station.”
Mistaken views of how victims behave had led to repeated failures, such as during the child sexual abuse cases in Rochdale, in bringing prosecutions.
“We have to challenge our understanding of how victims behave,” he said. “The notion that if you were raped you would go straight to the police station is deeply embedded [in public perceptions].” Until relatively recently it was the duty of a judge to remind the jury in a rape trial that a victim had not gone straight to the police.
In the courtroom, he added, victims also need to be treated with greater understanding and compassion. He referred to cases brought in the West Midlands under Operation Chalice, which investigated the grooming of teenagers and gang rapes of girls as young as 13.
At one stage, a victim was cross-examined for three weeks by a total of seven barristers. At the end of it, the teenagers said they would never go through the legal process again.
Starmer said: “We often say we have the best criminal justice system in the world and yet if those are some of the features of it we need to do some work. The way the criminal justice system has developed over the past 200 years has been as an adversarial system; it’s a straight fight.
“The prosecution puts up its case and the defence tries to to knock it down. As they collide, [supposedly] the truth pops out. For 200 years the only interest we have had is the prosecution and the defence. Victims are playing catch-up. We need to be more innovative.”
Judges can control what goes on in their court, the former DPP said, by enforcing agreed ground rules to control cross-examination. “Where they are used they are good and make a difference. I think ground rules are the way forward.”
Keir’s comments suggest he believes judges could become more involved in questioning vulnerable victims in court in a more inquisitorial fashion. Any changes, he insisted, should “be done without undermining the rights of the defence”.
His first aim is to introduce a “victim’s law” in the next parliament. Counsellors, who provide support for vicitms of rape and sexual attacks, he suggested, may need to be regulated in future. Mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse should also be introduced.
In terms of the Rochdale sex abuse cases, Starmer said he had inspected the original Crown Prosecution Service files that showed why the men who groomed the girls were not initially prosecuted.
“What I found in those files was that actually [the prosecutors] were trying to do their job in Rochdale,” he explained. “At that stage we were asking the prosecutors and police to assess the likelihood that this victim will be believed. So they were playing out a credibility test and that’s normally carried out on paper.”
At the time, Starmer said, the presumption was that victims who admitted taking drugs, returning to the men who abused them and not always giving coherent accounts of what had occurred, would not be believed in court.