Police recorded sexual offences reached their highest level over a 12-year period in the year ending December 2021 and increased by 22% from the preceding [Office of National Statistics. Crime in England and Wales: year ending December 2021].
The increasing court delays faced by complainants and victims have been widely covered in the national media, as have the serious problems with resources throughout the Criminal Justice System.
Sexual Offences allegations bring into sharp focus several key issues:
Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 was introduced by the government to allow witnesses to give their evidence before trial. Whilst it is often presented as a ‘solution’, in reality, this procedure has many flaws. One such flaw is that the jury loses the ability to assess the witness in real life, and instead sees them across a large court room being played back on a small screen. If trials were not taking so long to get to court, the vast number of these pre recordings would be unnecessary.
It is very common for those charged with Rape and other serious sexual offences to be ‘released under investigation’ after they are first spoken to about the allegations. This procedure was introduced by the government in April 2017 after negative publicity about the amount of time people were being placed on police bail (where someone is being investigated by the police, but is released from custody and subject to conditions such as not going to a certain area, not contacting a certain person, or living at a particular address).
The new procedure means there is no time limit for how long a person can be ‘under investigation’, and there are no conditions imposed upon them. People innocent of the offences they are accused of often wait a year or more before finding out whether they are going to be charged. Victims of these offences make their report and then see the perpetrator out and about in the community with no restrictions placed upon them
When the police investigate an offence they have a duty to investigate fairly, keep proper records, and disclose anything which undermines their case or helps the defence case to the defence. This process, known as ‘disclosure’, has raised significant concern in recent times when material has not been provided.
Reports suggest this is now happening in four out of ten cases. Issues have also been raised as to the balance between a complainant’s right to privacy and the importance of disclosure to a fair trial. Much of the publicity surrounding this issue fails to focus on the fact that material is only provided to the defence if it undermines the Prosecution case or helps the defence case; would a trial be fair if such material were not provided?