At the start of February Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the head of Scotland Yard, said that his force were wrong to automatically believe allegations about a Westminster paedophile ring. He has come under a lot of criticism as a result, including from other high rank police officials such as Vera Baird, the police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, who said “Thousands of victims of sexual abuse have been denied justice through the attitude the Met Commissioner now advocates.”
It took a long time for the police and prosecutors in Britain to move away from a highly combative attitude towards those who report crimes, and victims of sexual crime were the most frequently disbelieved and denied justice even as late the 1990’s. A public outcry at the way complainants were treated led to the formation of victim support posts both within the police and in the voluntary sector, but many cases continued to be reported without the police ever conducting a full and proper investigation into them. Two of the most prominent people to have been accused of abuse for years without ever facing trial were Jimmy Saville and Lord Janner, both of whom died before any form of justice could be done.
However, whilst those that reported these men for abuse were largely ignored, many other claims were treated as credible when, in fact, they were anything but. A desperation on the part of the police and prosecutors not to receive further criticism for their treatment of victims led them to adopt the position that everyone who reports such abuse should be believed by default and perpetrators should be prosecuted unless there is compelling reasons not to do so.
Putting aside the man known only as ‘Nick’, whose now discredited claims of abuse against various prominent figures were originally treated as utterly convincing, the most shocking recent case of the uphill battle faced by those who are wrongfully accused is that of Mark Pearson. Mark was accused by a young actress who has not been identified of sexually assaulting her by “penetrating her through her clothing” in Waterloo Station. However, CCTV footage of both Mark and his accuser at the station shows that they came into close proximity of one another just once on the day in question, for less than half a second, as they walked past each other. What’s more, at the time of passing the young woman, the footage shows Mark holding a newspaper in his left hand, and the strap of his rucksack on his shoulder with his right hand. There was no contact. Police had this footage when they questioned Mark and he reported in interview with Victoria Derbyshire that they seemed as bemused as he was as to why he had been arrested. However, despite this compelling evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service decided to put him on trial. The jury cleared him immediately.
Mark Pearson is very lucky, though he may not feel it. If the CCTV cameras had been out of action on the day in question, he could easily have been wrongfully convicted. Defence lawyers effectively had their hands tied by media influenced public opinion. Whilst it is true that no one wants to see genuine victims of abuse further traumatised by barking barristers when they come to give evidence against those who have wronged them, it is a fact that some people are indeed wrongly accused. But those who represent defendants they truly believe to be innocent can sometimes feel like they are on a knife edge between letting a potentially dishonest accuser off easily without the grilling that might expose inconsistencies in their story, or going in too hard at the risk of the jury feeling sorry for the complainant and wanting to convict out of sheer empathy. Add to this changes in the law which have effectively transferred the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defence, with those accused having the responsibility to prove such things as consent, and the cards are stacked against anyone who is put on trial from the very start. Whether someone is truly innocent or guilty is no longer a priority. The Police and the CPS are chiefly concerned with media and statistics. When someone is so accused the main influencing factor on whether a prosecution is launched seems to be whether that person has the influence to bring unwanted headlines or whether failing to prosecute might attract even worse criticism in the media. Then, if a prosecution is started, it doesn’t matter to the CPS whether evidence emerges which vindicates the defendant, statistics demand that they pursue a guilty verdict vigorously, to improve conviction rates.
In truth far more guilty people walk free than there are innocent people convicted of crimes they did not commit. But this is not a situation where we have to choose between sending innocent people to prison or letting guilty people go free to offend again. Nor is it a choice between believing all complainants when they report an allegation or treating them all as liars. Belief is actually irrelevant. It is not the remit of the police to form an opinion at all. The police’s duty is to protect and to investigate. If there is an imminent risk, they should address that risk. If not, they should be looking into the reported allegation impartially, gathering evidence and passing it to the CPS who should then review it (again, impartially) and decide whether there is a sufficient level of proof that the accused committed the crime in question. If so, they should be prosecuted and that evidence should be put before the jury to decide whether the case is proven beyond reasonable doubt. If not, no prosecution should take place at all.
The only person who should treat the complainant in a case as a victim, and believe them without question, is the Victim Support Officer, who should have nothing to do with the investigation or the prosecution at all. This way, true victims will be given the emotional support they need and deserve, as well as receiving an impartial investigation into their case which is not prejudiced in any way by individual viewpoints and emotions or hidden agendas, whilst those who are wrongfully accused can rely on exactly the same thing too.