Recent high-profile sex assault trials fail to recognise the rights of the innocent when they stand accused, writes Tiffany Jenkins
I’ve gone through eleven months of hell”. So said Nigel Evans, former deputy speaker of the House of Commons, on the steps of Preston Crown Court this week, on being cleared of one count of rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted sexual assault and two indecent assaults.
Evans spoke movingly about the ordeal he went through after he was arrested. He was found not guilty of every single accusation, but the case has taken its toll. His sexual peccadillos have been made public, his reputation is tarnished. It remains to be seen if he will be able to restore his career to what it once was.
He summed it up: “Nothing will ever be the same again”.
His acquittal comes after the Crown Prosecution Service has unsuccessfully brought cases against a number of prominent men, including Coronation Street actors Bill Roache and Michael Le Vell. In each case, the jury found them not guilty. The verdicts are reassuring. That a jury scrutinised the evidence, in something of a hysterical climate, and concluded that for every single one that there was not enough for a conviction, is probably a good thing.
Confidence in juries aside, what is questionable is that these cases went to court at all, because they were too flimsy. That so many such cases have gone to court in a short space of time, suggests that a period of reflection is called for in the English system, along with a reconsideration of the way sexual assault allegations are currently handled.
Others think a reassessment is timely. The former DPP Lord Macdonald told the Times newspaper that the CPS was in danger of “losing perspective” on historical abuse cases, urging them to “keep a cool head”.
David Davis MP has called for the Attorney General to “urgently review” the process whereby the CPS and the police put together subsidiary cases to reinforce one serious case when prosecuting sexual offences. These concerns should be heard.
There will always be a discrepancy between cases brought to court and guilty verdicts. The CPS, when deciding to prosecute, has to be satisfied that there is a realistic chance of conviction. The jury has to be assured beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. The CPS and the jury, then, have different tasks, and require a different degree of persuasion. That is the way it should be.
No one wants to be soft on criminal abuse. We know that people act very badly towards one another, which should be punished. These acts can be difficult to prove because it is usually a case of one person’s word against another. Extra evidence is hard to come by, but it is necessary.
However, looking at the changes to the law, both passed and proposed in recent years, it would appear that the amount of evidence now required is thinning, and the scales of justice are skewered against one side.
Something needs to be done to restore the principle of innocent until proven guilty and to ensure cases are strong enough to justify prosecution.
Both the accused and the accuser deserve a fair trial, but it is not clear that is what they receive. In Scotland, England and Wales, despite the different systems, there are parallel, destructive trends at play, with changes to the law that require scrutiny. To list just a few: in Scotland, the end of corroboration will see the removal of the need for evidence from two sources to bring a case to court. It’s a controversial change. Those defending it talk about the needs of the victims, but until the accused is found guilty the victim is the accuser.
The idea of the change is to make it easier to get cases to court, but the Nigel Evans case should remind us that going to court is hard on people. The case must be firm enough to justify it, for everyone’s sake.
In cases of the prosecution of rape and sexual offences, we can know the name of the accused, but not the accuser. This is unfair and unequal – surely both sides deserve the same treatment.
In England and Wales, Labour plans a “victim’s law” which would repeal further the rights of the defendant. Sir Keir Starmer, who is drafting the proposed law, recommends changing the adversarial nature of the justice system, suggesting that judges – who are supposed to be neutral – are given the task of quizzing young and vulnerable witnesses, putting them under less pressure than would the prosecution.
The direction of travel with these changes to the law is worrying. All have been passed or proposed in the apparent interests of the victims and harm the rights of the defendants.
With the critical fallout from the Nigel Evans case, the CPS has leapt to its defence. Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, said that it would not “shy away from prosecuting difficult cases”. That they had to continue to prosecute such cases out of a “duty to victims”.
But what is shocking in the Nigel Evans case is how the police went out of their way to trawl for and find complainants.
Three of the alleged victims told police that they did not think any crime had taken place, and that they did not want to press charges – the so-called victims did not consider themselves victims, but were used by the police to build a case against one man, which quickly fell apart under the eyes of the jury.
One “victim” told the police: “I do not wish to pursue any kind of complaint against Nigel because I do not believe he has committed any offences.” Another “victim” said: “I do not wish Mr Evans to be charged as a result of what happened to me. I have absolutely no intention of making a complaint to the police and I am making this statement as a witness and not as a victim seeking justice.”
We have to wonder what Saunders really means when she says they are acting in the interests of the victims, when some of the so-called victims don’t think of themselves in that way.
It is time for a rethink of the way Scotland, England and Wales prosecute crimes of rape and sexual abuse, or more hell will be unleashed on the innocent.