CPS and police struggle under the load of sex abuse investigations

2 October 2015

Last week the Metropolitan Police announced that it is creating a team of 90 staff to deal with the increased workload resulting from the ongoing investigations into historic child abuse. The team will deal with 29 new allegations of police cover ups of high-profile figures accused of sexual abuse as well as further work emanating from Justice Lowell Goddard’s child abuse public inquiry.

At the same time, the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC, was forced to acknowledge to Justice Select Committee MPs that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is under increasing pressure when dealing with the large number of child sexual abuse cases that are being investigated, albeit he maintained that the Prosecutor is “coping well”.

Those of us who work in the Criminal Justice System have serious doubts as to how well either the CPS or the Police are coping with the increased number of investigations into sexual offences.  The major concern is the effect stretched resources have on effective and expeditious investigations and the impact delays have on both suspects and victims alike.

As a criminal defence solicitor I have become well versed in consoling my clients as to the painfully slow nature of criminal litigation. However, there is no doubt that in recent times delays have increased significantly as both police and prosecutors struggle to stay on top of the vast numbers of sexual allegations being reported.  According to the Office of National Statistics sexual offences recorded by the police rose by 37% in the year ending March 2015 with the numbers of rapes (29,265) and other sexual offences (58,954) being at the highest level since the introduction of the National Crime Reporting Standard in 2003. 

In contrast to the surge in complaints and investigations, police and prosecutors’ budgets have decreased over the same period. Re-assigning police officers from other investigations to work on historic sexual abuse matters will not resolve the resource problem on its own. There is little point having 90 more staff investigating allegations unless there are prosecutors available to review these cases, advise on further enquiries required and to make charging decisions, in a timely manner. The Government must provide appropriate funding to allow this to happen.

An independent report commissioned in June by Dame Elish Angiolini emphasised the “overwhelming burden” on police officers working in the Metropolitan Police’s sexual offence unit  (the Sapphire Unit), and the importance of improved engagement at an early stage in the investigation between the police and the CPS’s own specialist Rape and Serious Sexual Offences Unit (the RASSO Unit). An official response to the report by both the CPS and the police suggested that improvements have and are being made.  But, off the record, Sapphire officers complain of the inability to contact CPS lawyers and the time it takes for them to review cases after the police have submitted a file.  It is understood that the current backlog of cases at some RASSO units is over 6 months from the date the CPS receive the file to the time a charging decision is made.  

It is, of course, of fundamental importance that in such sensitive and difficult cases, experienced and specialist prosecutors should carefully consider the case before deciding on the merits of a prosecution. But when the delay is frequently based on the fact that there are too few prosecutors reviewing too many cases it is understandable that those involved in the process become disillusioned.  

High profile figures, such as Paul Gambuccini, have publically condemned the experience they had to endure as suspects. Gambuccini’s memoirs articulate well the repercussions for those who have their lives put on hold whilst they are investigated for something that they did not do. Indeed, following the significant criticism of the length of time suspects spent on police bail in both Operation Yewtree (child abuse) and Operation Elveden (phone hacking) investigations, Theresa May pledged last December to introduce a 28 day limit on the length of time suspects could be subject to police bail.

The proposals will form part of the new Police and Criminal Justice Bill, which has yet to be laid before Parliament. The bill is expected to include provisions requiring approval for extension of bail from a senior police officer after 28 days and oversight by a district judge every three months if a detective wants more time to investigate a case. Whilst Government intervention is welcome, it will mean nothing if resources are not provided to the police and CPS to ensure that it is logistically possible to turn round cases within the time limits provided.

During his evidence to the Justice Select Committee the Attorney General pointed out that, “Where there is clear additional workload resulting from something that is entirely outside the CPS’s control, which is a particular block of cases, I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask for additional funding”. Now would be the perfect time to ask.

This article was first published in The Times in September 2015. 

Further information

For further information, please contact David Sleight or visit our Sex Offences page.

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