Debate: Do Victims Of Sex Crimes Need Better Legal Rights?

Sexual violence has been a key topic in the news of late. With Operation Yewtree showing few signs of coming to an end, the emerging narratives of abuse of girls in care by groups of men in Rotherham, Oxford, and elsewhere, the currency of the issue means that those who experience sexual violence are increasingly likely to report it.

Nor is sexual violence a historical horror to be narrated as a thing of the past: estimates suggest that one in four women in the UK will experience sexual attack during their lifetime.

Britain quite rightly has a reputation as a country in which those accused of crime, any crime, will get a fair trial. It is proper that this continues; nobody wants to see the innocent wrongly imprisoned as this is of no benefit to victims. At the same time, those who cling to the status quo often express an opinion that women routinely make false allegations – and this is entirely untrue, and bolsters a fear of reporting which means that attacks often go unreported and therefore unpunished.

At the Feminism in London conference this October, we have a panel of legal experts looking at the apparent tug-of-war between the rights of a defendant in court and the rights of victims.

Last year the inquest into the tragic death of Frances Andrade, who died a week after giving evidence against a man who had abused her as a teenager, highlighted the current problems within the adversarial court system. Likewise, the apparent indifference to the Rotherham teenagers, who had reported that they were being trafficked for prostitution by their ‘boyfriends’ but had found indifference rather than support, suggests that there is huge scope for a sea change in the way in which victims of sexual violence are treated in the legal system. These are high profile cases but it is no exaggeration to say that every family in the UK will have at least one member affected by this – whether that is in a decision to, or not to, report an attack, or someone who has had to give evidence.

How can we ensure that victims’ rights are as carefully respected as those of defendants, without prejudicing the right to a fair trial?

Is it simply a matter of better witness care, allowing prosecutors to have regular contact? A defendant will meet their legal team on regular occasions, preparing their defence and being advised of how the procedure will work. Should a victim, likewise, be entitled to an advocate who will help them navigate the system? Would this be enough?

One suggestion has been to dispense with jury trials for certain types of case, a suggestion which has met with disapprobation from those who regard this as a slippery slope towards dispensing with jury trials altogether.

Another has been to look at increased use of “Achieving Best Evidence” interviews which are done on video rather than in person, and an increased use of special measures such as screens in court, as well as increased training of barristers and judges in dealing with sensitive issues and vulnerable witnesses.

Others have argued that all of this is window dressing and that there needs to be baseline legislative change.

The panel at Feminism in London will look at the “right to a fair trial” but from the victims’ perspective. The expert speakers will be Felicity Gerry QC, author of the Sexual Offences Handbook, Angela Rafferty QC, the lead prosecutor in the Peterborough child exploitation ring case heard at Old Bailey, and Debaleena Dasgupta, the solicitor who acted for a number of the women failed by Operation Sapphire.

It promises to be a fascinating discussion and audience members will be encouraged to participate.

The conference is 24-25 October 2015 and tickets as well as details of all of the panels are available at www.feminisminlondon.co.uk.

Image credit: Flickr / Eric The Fish

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