Eastenders explores rape: Part 5 - what happens when a complainant wants to "drop the case"?

10 April 2019

In this blog series, we have been following the progress of one of the latest EastEnders storylines, which centres on a young woman who claims to have been raped by two men after a night of heavy drinking.

The storyline has been praised in the press as being ‘thought provoking’ and ‘authentic’, and through working with the charity Rape Crisis, the writers have sought to ensure it is portrayed sensitively and realistically. The full background is set out in Part 1 of this series.

In this part, we will explore what happens when a complainant decides that they want the police to drop the charges against the person, or persons, they have accused of wrongdoing.

What the viewers saw

It has been a harrowing few months for Ruby Allen since the night she went back to the party with Ross and Matt.  She has been through a roller coaster of emotions as viewers have seen her wavering between being defiant and committed to taking her alleged attackers on at court, and telling the police that she wants to drop the charges completely.

A recent episode ends with Ruby leaving a voice message for her Sexual Offences Trained Officer telling them she no longer wants to support the prosecution of the two men.

What happens when a complainant no longer wants to support the prosecution or no longer wants to give evidence?

There are a whole range of reasons why someone may no longer want to be proceed with a case they have reported to the police, including anxiety about giving evidence at court, intimidation by the perpetrator or even that they no longer stand by the accusation they originally made.

In cases of rape where the complainant and defendant are often the only witnesses, the complainant will almost certainly be expected to give evidence at court. This may prompt many complainants to consider their position.

However, even if a complainant withdraws their support for the prosecution, it does not necessarily mean that the case will automatically be dropped. In the UK, it is the state which prosecutes individuals accused of crimes, not an individual, so it is ultimately the prosecutor who makes the decision about whether a case continues or not.

What does the prosecutor do?

The prosecutor will have to make a decision whether to continue with the prosecution even if the complainant no longer wants to participate.  

A request to withdraw support should be communicated to either the police or the Crown Prosecution Service (‘CPS’) by way of a ‘statement of withdrawal of support for prosecution.’ This written statement should explain why the complainant no longer wants charges to be brought against their alleged attackers and confirm whether their original complaint was true or not.

The CPS has to find out why the complainant has made this decision, in particular to ensure that he/she is not in fear of the perpetrator or subject to pressure or intimidation. If there is any reason to believe that the complainant has been pressurised into withdrawing their complaint, by the accused or anyone else, then the police will investigate this further.

If the complainant confirms that the original complaint is true, then the CPS will consider the evidential test and public interest test set out in part 4 of this series, before making a decision on whether to pursue the matter.

If there is enough other evidence, then it is possible that the prosecutor could proceed without relying on the complainant’s evidence at all. However, where the prosecutor decides that the case should continue, despite the complainant’s wishes, and it is necessary to rely on the complainant’s evidence to prove the case, they have three options.

They must decide whether:

  • They should make an application to the court to allow them to use the complainant's statement or their Achieving Best Evidence (‘ABE’) interview as evidence, without the complainant having to give evidence in court. It is up to the court to make a decision as to whether it is in the interests of justice to allow this to happen and it is only be permissible in very limited circumstances;
  • They can put ‘special measures’ in place which can convince the complainant to attend the court.  Special measures could include allowing the complainant to give evidence via video link so they don’t have to come into the court room or putting screens up around the witness box; or
  • They should compel the complainant to give evidence in person in court. It is of course preferable for complainants to give evidence willingly but if a specialist rape prosecutor is satisfied, after consultation with the police and any other interested person, that such a course is necessary, then they can issue a witness summons.

Recent reporting in the press – domestic abuse victims ‘dropping charges’ against their attackers

Women’s Aid defines domestic abuse as ‘an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.

The Guardian reported that in 2016 there was a 40% increase in the number of domestic abuse complainants withdrawing support for charges against their alleged abusers, compared to the previous 12 months.  Cuts to policing and specialist services for individuals in these situations have raised concerns that they are not getting the robust support they need despite being extremely vulnerable to further abuse and attacks.

Victims of domestic violence are commonly in extremely complex situations and can be hugely reliant on the police or other professionals to help them escape from their abusers. When a complainant decides to withdraw support for the prosecution case, the police will carry out an assessment of the victim’s and any children’s safety before making a decision on whether to proceed with a prosecution.

There have been calls for more resources to be spent on identifying alternative avenues for collecting evidence which would allow the police to build a case without relying on the complainant’s evidence.  Over the last few years, the use of body worn cameras by police officers has become an important part of the police response to domestic abuse. Video footage of the interactions between attending police officers, the alleged perpetrator and complainant can capture important evidence from the scene of an incident. As a consequence, video evidence recorded by the cameras has helped the successful prosecution and the defence of domestic abuse cases, even in the absence of cooperation and support.

What is next for Ruby Allen?

EastEnders viewers will know that Ruby is convinced to continue supporting the prosecution of the two men and she is about to face them in court. Both men could be facing prison time if they are found guilty so it will all come down to the jury’s verdict.

Further information

For further information on the issues raised in this blog post, please contact a member of our criminal litigation team in confidence.

You may also be interested in reading some of our other blogs around consent:

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