JERRY HAYES: Setting targets for rape trials would betray victims

Rape should never go unpunished. But I fear setting targets for trials would betray victims – and the innocent, writes barrister JERRY HAYES

Another day, another story to make the heart sink for anyone who believes in fair justice.

‘Johnson to set targets for police to increase rape prosecutions,’ blared one newspaper yesterday.

Rattled by the revelation that the number of rape trials brought to the courts since 2016 has massively declined, it claimed that the Government had decided to press that dangerous red button marked ‘something must be done’.

The proposal came just days after another retrograde step — the news that the College of Policing had issued guidance that advised officers to routinely believe victims of abuse.

Plight

On the surface, both these initiatives might come across as well-meaning, even welcome. 

After all, don’t we all want to see victims of rape and abuse have their cases heard and the perpetrators put behind bars? Of course we do.

It would undermine the public’s confidence in justice, would deter women from coming forward and wreck the lives of many young men who might be tried for a serious crime on flimsy evidence. I know of what I speak. In 2017, I prosecuted the case of Liam Allan (above)

But as a former MP and practising barrister who has worked on a number of high-profile rape cases, I can tell you these measures would fly in the face of justice and, far from helping victims, actually make their plight worse.

At the centre of these latest pronouncements over rape is Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, a former Labour MP, who served as solicitor general in Gordon Brown’s administration.

She now sits on the Prime Minister’s Crime and Justice Task Force and has been pushing her wrongheaded ‘solutions’ on this issue for some time.

Let me say at the outset that we should all be concerned about the fall in the number of rape cases coming to court. Every case must be treated seriously and properly investigated. And every accuser must be treated with decency, respect and have the right to be believed. 

But the truth is that Dame Vera is a menace to justice, and the Prime Minister must not allow her to hijack the criminal justice system and replace diligent, fair investigation and sound decision-making with targets and quotas.

At the centre of these latest pronouncements over rape is Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, a former Labour MP, who served as solicitor general in Gordon Brown’s administration. She now sits on the Prime Minister’s Crime and Justice Task Force and has been pushing her wrongheaded ‘solutions’ on this issue for some time

Indeed, I believe the very idea of ‘targets’ for rape prosecutions should send a shiver down the spine of any parent whose daughter is the victim of a rape or whose son is accused of it.

Neither will get satisfaction because targeting and quotas are inimical to the administration of justice and yet, for reasons that I will explain, they keep returning to the agenda.

As things stand, every case has to pass a ‘threshold test’, which means the police investigate it and pass their evidence to the Crown Proseuction Service, which then decides whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.

If there is, it goes to court. If there isn’t, it doesn’t. And there is another filtering process for getting the right and fair decision: the involvement of skilled and experienced prosecutors from the independent bar.

The introduction of targets would throw these important principles out of the window. Instead, cases which haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of success would be mixed in with solid cases.

It would undermine the public’s confidence in justice, would deter women from coming forward and wreck the lives of many young men who might be tried for a serious crime on flimsy evidence.

I know of what I speak. In 2017, I prosecuted the case of Liam Allan. He was a young man of good character accused of multiple rapes of the same girl. On the surface, it seemed a horrific crime.

But on the day the trial was due to commence, the defence counsel asked me if there were any more downloads available from the accuser’s phone in addition to the ones we had disclosed. 

None had been flagged up to me or to the CPS, but I decided to check with the investigating officer. To my surprise, he said that there were, but they shouldn’t be disclosed as they were ‘private’. All 60,000 of them.

No lawyer had seen them, so I decided they should be shown to the defence in order to allow them to decide if there was anything in them that might assist their case. There was.

Text exchanges revealed that their sex was consensual, with one, sent by the accuser to a female friend, saying: ‘It wasn’t against my will or anything.’ Other texts showed how she asked for more sex and harboured bondage and rape fantasies.

The texts so seriously undermined the prosecution case that there was no reasonable prospect of a conviction and the trial had to be aborted.

From that day on, as a result of the ensuing public outrage, there was a sea-change in the way disclosure to the defence was conducted. And it served as a wake-up call to the police, who went on to reappraise the way rapes were investigated.

Absurd

Now Dame Vera wants to turn the clock back. She cannot help herself uttering the most ridiculous and dangerous nonsense about police interrogating an accuser’s social media downloads as ‘digital rape’.

It gives the false impression that if someone accuses another of rape then it is a free-for-all for the defence to go on a treasure hunt. It isn’t.

The Court of Appeal has made it clear that there would have to be a legitimate line of enquiry that indicates that there is a reasonable chance of finding evidence that undermines the prosecution case or assists the defence.

Dame Vera has demanded that this non-existent ‘intrusive breach of privacy’ should be ended. Again, an absurd misreading of what best serves a fair trial. 

Under the monstrous proposals floated yesterday, young men like Liam Allan might find themselves put in front of a jury just to hit a target or fill a quota. That would be disgraceful.

Dame Vera has also outrageously said that the CPS is ‘decriminalising rape…in some cases we are allowing persistent predatory sex offenders to go on to reoffend in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be called to account’.

Disbelief

I have been prosecuting and defending rape cases for more than 40 years and I have never experienced or heard of an occasion where a serial sex offender was not placed before a jury. In cases such as that, the jury would be told of his previous convictions.

And then, without a shred of evidence, Dame Vera proclaimed ‘that there is a culture of disbelief in the criminal justice system’. At that, most of us at the criminal bar choked in disbelief.

Indeed, I believe the very idea of ‘targets’ for rape prosecutions should send a shiver down the spine of any parent whose daughter is the victim of a rape or whose son is accused of it. A stock image is used above  [File photo]

Yes, we must strain every sinew to make the perpetrators of rape, sexual assault and abuse pay for their crimes, but not at the expense of undermining the very foundations of our justice system. 

I fear a quota system of any kind would do just that. And this at a time when convictions in rape cases that actually get to court are at an all-time high of 68.5 per cent.

Thankfully, the Government has already moved to quash the idea at birth, with the PM’s spokesman saying: ‘Quotas or numerical targets would undermine prosecutorial impartiality where cases are individual by nature and require a specific set of considerations in each instance.’

I sincerely hope they stick to their guns, in the face of continued lobbying. For I fear we haven’t heard the last of Dame Vera and her like, and a dangerously warped view of justice. 

Jerry Hayes was the Tory MP for Harlow in Essex from 1983-1997. 

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