Since the Jimmy Savile revelations there has been a significant increase in historic sexual abuse allegations. The police have launched a number of operations, with Operation Yewtree and Operation Hydrant being the most well-known, with over 1,400 suspects identified between them. The situation is further compounded by crimes committed through the internet.
This increase in accusations has caused the criminal justice system to struggle. The nature and scale of the offences has meant that ever increasing resources are needed to investigate and prosecute, causing other crimes to be neglected and increasing the risk of miscarriages of justice. Recent cases that have collapsed due to non-disclosure of unused material demonstrate the difficulty being faced.
The increased reporting of sexual offences and the grave nature of such offences requires an adequate criminal justice response. The volume, gravity and complexity of these offences requires an adequate response to ensure access to justice for victims and the right to a fair trial for suspects. The aim of this working party was to create recommendations to ensure that there is an adequate response. This will encompass all stages of the criminal justice process: (1) investigation; (2) the decision to charge; (3) prosecution; (4) sentencing and (5) offender programmes and recidivism reduction. Solutions to this issue will undoubtedly require increasing the efficiency of the criminal justice response. Where efficiency solutions are considered, these must take into account the right to a fair trial, and in particular, the presumption of innocence.
The Working Party
The Working Party examined how the approach to investigation, prosecution and sentence has evolved in light of the increase in reported sexual crime. Its remit covered England and Wales and Scotland. It has made practical recommendations with a view to reducing the burden on the police, the courts and all other actors in the process. It has specifically addressed the problems encountered in the prosecution of historic and online offences.
In pursuing its aims, the Working Party reviewed:
- the decision to prosecute minor offences, and specifically young and very old people, to identify whether there are appropriate alternatives in certain circumstances;
- investigation and prosecution to see whether delay and lengthy processes can be avoided through, for example, technology, special procedures and dedicated courts; and
- the treatment and offender programmes available for sex offenders to identify the best options in reducing recidivism.
The Working Party considered the approach in comparative jurisdictions, and identified best practice solutions where they were relevant to its work. The Working Party’s recommendations has been designed so as not to encroach upon a defendant’s absolute right to a fair trial, or to erode complainant rights in any way.
The members of the Working Party were:
- HH Peter Rook QC (Chair)
- HHJ Angela Rafferty QC
- HH Inigo Bing
- Anna Rothwell
- Charles Yates
- Christopher Rose
- Sir David Calvert-Smith
- Dr Geraldine Akerman
- Julia Faure Walker
- Lucy Tapper
- Lynton Orrett
- Professor Michael Lamb
- Nick Barnard
- Nickolas Lankey
- Peter Carter QC
- Dame Vera Baird QC
- Dr Sinéad Ring
- Tina Dempster
- Victoria Dow
- Tariq Desai (Rapporteur)
We are very grateful to Corker Binning who supported the Working Party.
The Prosecuting Sexual Offences report was published on 10th June 2019 at Corker Binning in London.
Our 57 recommendations across investigations, prosecution and sentencing include:
- internet companies should be required to report to Companies House what they are doing to stop sexual offences taking place on their platforms. A director of a company that fails to do this should be held criminally liable.
- a pre-charge scheme should be piloted for individuals who have viewed indecent images of children and do not have a relevant criminal record, focussing on improving life skills. Failure to complete the scheme could result in prosecution;
- police video recorded interviews should be tailored to the needs of vulnerable witnesses in terms of location, questioning and structure, to improve the quality of their evidence;
- there should be a dedicated hearing to assess the needs of complainants giving evidence and pre-recorded evidence should be available for all sexual offence cases;
- the Judicial College and the Inns of Court College of Advocacy should consider joint training to achieve the appropriate treatment of vulnerable witnesses and their best quality evidence;
- help set higher standards for working with vulnerable witnesses and defendants in sexual offence cases;
- in Scotland, more vulnerable witness-friendly suites should be constructed in different areas of the country, to reduce journey times and increase capacity.
HH Peter Rook QC, chair of the working party, said:
“We have sought to identify areas where greater efficiency can be achieved without in any way eroding fair trial. We found that there is substantial scope for alleviating the pressures upon the criminal justice system by improving our response to sexual offending and treatment of those it has harmed.”