Change aimed at speeding up cases, but campaigners brand it as ‘backwards step’
By Alex Varley-Winter | 25 September 2012
“Removing skilled and trained prosecutors would result in a backwards step”
– Jo Wood, Rape Crisis spokeswoman
Official guidelines that rape cases must be prosecuted by barristers with specialist sex-crime training have been weakened, Exaro can reveal.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has relaxed its rules requiring a specialist barrister to attend every stage of a rape case. Instead, other barristers will be allowed to step in when the specialist is unavailable.
Exaro has established that the rule was changed at the end of last month, and is aimed at speeding up the court process for rape cases. But it has angered campaigners for rape victims.
Heather Harvey, research and development manager at Eaves, a charity that helps women who have suffered violence in London, told Exaro: “This is a backwards step and is clearly another case of saving money at the expense of justice for women.
“More work needs to be done to reduce the lengthy process of rape cases, which causes significant distress to victims, but the answer to this and to a shortage of specialists is to invest in training many more of them, not to ditch a successful policy.”
In a speech to CPS lawyers and victims’ support groups only last January, the chief crown prosecutor for London, Alison Saunders, stressed the importance of the rules because they ensured that “no cases had been assigned to non-RS [rape specialist] lawyers”.
The revised CPS guidance says: “Wherever possible the instructed advocate should conduct the hearing, including defence applications for bail and other interlocutory hearings.”
It continues: “A non-accredited advocate (or non-rape specialist HCA [High Court advocate]) may be instructed, but only where the instructed advocate is able to speak directly to their replacement and ensure they are fully briefed on the circumstances of the case.
“The aim of this guidance is to ensure that rape cases are prosecuted to the highest possible standard and if not by the instructed advocate by an alternative advocate who is fully briefed by the instructed advocate on all relevant matters.”
A CPS spokeswoman told Exaro that specialist prosecutors “should” continue to lead rape cases and be used in trials. She said: “We would expect chambers to put an experienced person on a case such as rape because it is a very serious offence. We would do our very best to ensure that all trials are conducted by accredited rape specialists.”
She said that the revision was “necessary”, saying: “Previously, there was no guidance on what to do when your accredited rape specialist was not available.”
But campaigners fear that it represents a serious weakening of the guidelines.
Jo Wood, spokeswoman for the campaign group, Rape Crisis, said: “Removing skilled and trained prosecutors would result in a backwards step regarding the conviction rate and any progress that has been made by the CPS.”
She continued: “In our experience, victims and witnesses are not prepared or aware of the lengthy process from report to court. Improvements in police investigation and a review of the subsequent criminal-justice processes need to be undertaken.”
However, Michael Turner, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, told Exaro that the changes were necessary. “Before a trial, there will be a number of hearings,” he said. “You will not always need a rape specialist prosecutor to be present.”
“It costs £110 a minute to run a courtroom with a jury. Every minute of delay is costing someone further down the line and the delays in our system are now endemic.”
Guy Ladenburg, a barrister and rape specialist for the CPS, agreed. The new policy was “more manageable and more flexible”, he said.
There are 890 barristers in the UK who have been trained at victim-focused centres specifically to prosecute rape cases.
In the 2010-11 financial year, the courts dealt with 4,208 rape prosecutions, according to the CPS, a 10 per cent increase on the previous period. The rate of victims’ reporting rape to police has more than doubled over the past decade to nearly 17,000 in 2011.
The courts take longer to deal with rape cases than other crimes. Court statistics show that in the last financial year, sex crime cases were concluded on average 200 days after a defendant was charged, nearly double the figure of 102 days for all other criminal offences.