Voter ID laws and the way courts interpret legislation
This week the Crime (Aggravated Murder of and Violence against Women) Bill was debated in Parliament. Key features include removing ‘honour killing’ as a separate crime, extending criminal liability to offences committed against British women when abroad, and facilitating the return of British women who have suffered abuse in another country.
The Bill follows a long line of consultations, reports and legislation which focus on the prevention of violence against women and girls, so called ‘VAWG’ crimes. In this extended article, David Sleight and Kate Galza take an in-depth look at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) approach regarding these gender-specific crimes, analyse the truth behind the statistics and question whether the strategy is working.
A VAWG crime is an act of violence that is directed against a woman or girl because of her gender or which affects her disproportionately. Based on the United Nation’s Committee to End Discrimination Against Women definition, it encompasses “physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty”. The CPS has adopted this definition of VAWG related offences and it has been central to their strategy and focus in this area.
Potential VAWG crimes include stalking, harassment, rape, sexual assault, forced marriage, human trafficking, prostitution, pornography and obscenity as well as acts more traditionally associated with physical violence such as domestic and child abuse, honour based violence and female genital mutilation (‘FGM’). More recent offences such as controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship (see our blog: Controlling and Coercive Behaviour Figures: No Surprise) and disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress (so called ‘Revenge Porn’, please see our blog Allegations of ‘revenge porn’ on the rise) have also been developed under the overarching VAWG framework.
The VAWG report 2015/16
Only three years ago, the CPS reported a record low in the number of rape allegations handed to prosecutors, despite the rise in the number of rapes referred to the Police. The reduced reporting was thought to be indicative of the lack of focus on VAWG related crimes. Women’s charities and victim support groups expressed concern that these types of cases were not always taken seriously, or that officers were ill-equipped to handle them. However, the much publicised Violence against Women and Girls 2015-16 report by the CPS paints a very different picture to that in 2012-13. It reveals that referrals and convictions for VAWG offences have increased exponentially over the last three years.
VAWG report – key findings
The figures appear to be consistent with recent government initiatives to fortify the legislative framework for VAWG crimes. Of particular note are the introduction of schemes such as Clare’s law (allowing members of the public to ask the Police if their partner poses a risk to them); the new legislation criminalising coercive and controlling behaviour and “revenge porn”; and the availability of protection orders for domestic violence, sexual violence and female genital mutilation. The prevalence of online abuse or ‘trolling’, such as the 600 plus rape threats directed at Jess Phillips MP on Twitter in one night, has also prompted the CPS to introduce new social media guidance concerning possible offences under the Serious Crime Act 2007 for encouraging internet harassment. Examples include the creation of derogatory hashtags or ‘virtual mobbing’.
VAWG crimes also have a strong presence in popular culture, perhaps most notably in the serialised sufferings of Helen Titchener at the hands of her abusive husband Rob in the Archers (see our blog: From the Archers to Archbold – week ending 10/04/16 ). High profile domestic violence complainants such as Amber Heard (Johnny Depp’s ex-wife) have attracted media interest, while protests such as Emma Sulkowicz’s ‘Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight)’ have brought international attention to the alleged ‘rape culture’ at some universities. The CPS even ran its own social media campaign entitled ‘#ConsentIs’.
Another reason for the increased reporting is down to the ‘Saville effect’. The high profile nature of Jimmy Saville and other Operation Yewtree investigations has led to a greater public ’acceptance’ to people coming forward and being open about their experiences of rape and other sexual offences. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the number of rapes reported to the Police has increased by 123% since 2011/12.
Behind the figures
At first glance, the results from the 2015-16 report seem attributable to growing public awareness of VAWG crimes and a CPS that is becoming more effective at securing convictions. It is significant that of these successful convictions, 89% were achieved because the defendant chose to plead guilty. This is approximately the same percentage of convictions for all offences in the Crown Court (see the CPS’ Annual Report and Accounts 2015-16). The CPS would argue that a renewed focus on VAWG crimes has enabled them to gather evidence and build cases more effectively leaving the defendant with little option but to plead guilty in the vast majority of cases.
So far so good. However, a close analysis of the figures reveals that 25% of the total number of prosecutions for VAWG crimes resulted in acquittals. This is significantly higher than the percentage of acquittals in the Crown Court for all crimes (19.6%). Of those VAWG crime acquittals, 66% were as a result of discontinuance, withdrawal or the prosecution offering no evidence (20,015 in total). As such, whilst there has been a rise in the number of reports, investigations and consequently prosecutions, a disproportionate amount of those cases have been dropped due to CPS failures and/or because the Judge has ruled that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. It is arguable that many of these type of cases should not have been charged in the first place.
The CPS responsibility
The increased number of VAWG crimes being reported must be matched by increased vigilance on behalf of prosecutors to ensure that cases where the evidence is weak or the complainant’s account is unreliable are weeded out before the case is brought to trial and the defendant has his name dragged through the mud. The prosecutor’s discretion on whether to charge an offence or not should never be influenced by a desire to increase conviction rates but on an analysis of the strength of the evidence in each individual case. Equally, sufficient resources need be made available to ensure that specialist Prosecutors have the time to carefully assess the complex and sensitive issues often associated with VAWG crimes (see our related blog: CPS and police struggle under the load of sex abuse investigations).
With VAWG crimes high on the government agenda and deeply rooted in the public conscience, there is an understandable temptation to prove that the strategy is working. Certainly the statistics suggest that the number of VAWG prosecutions and convictions are increasing year on year, no doubt assisted by the raft of new legislative powers. However, with greater power comes greater responsibility, and it is incumbent on the Government to ensure sufficient resources are provided to the CPS so that each case can be scrutinised on its own merit. The statistics show a disproportionate amount of cases are brought to trial only to be dropped due to a lack of evidence –failing both the suspect and the victim. Cases where there is no realistic prospect of conviction should be identified and abandoned at an early stage. A VAWG case should never be brought simply to make up the numbers.
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