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'New attitude' for sex abuse cases

Britain's top prosecutor has called new guidelines for child sex abuse cases "the most fundamental attitude shift" in the criminal justice system in a generation.

The finalised advice includes a list of myths and stereotypes about victims that prosecutors may need to battle in court, such as claims being undermined by a delay in reporting a crime, inconsistencies in what the victim remembers and whether they were drunk or wearing revealing clothes.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said: "In the past five years our approach to prosecuting sexual offences has matured and developed - but this change marks the most fundamental attitude shift across the criminal justice system for a generation.

"For too long, child sexual abuse cases have been plagued by myths about how 'real' victims behave which simply do not withstand scrutiny. The days of the model victim are over.

"From now on these cases will be investigated and prosecuted differently, whatever the vulnerabilities of the victim."

The guidelines cover how victims should be treated and how a case should be built and presented in court. They were drawn up after a number of high profile and controversial sex crime cases.

These included sex abuse gangs that operated in Rochdale and Oxford, as well as the missed chance to prosecute Jimmy Savile in 2009.

More recently, a row erupted after a prosecutor called a 13-year-old victim "predatory".

Alison Worsley, Deputy Director of Strategy at Barnardo's, said: "A wholesale shift in attitudes is required throughout the legal system when dealing with the child victims of sexual exploitation and these guidelines are a step towards achieving that.

"We must make sure we always listen to what children are telling us, often through their behaviour rather than just words, and consign stereotypes and myths to the history books.

"The challenge comes now for police and prosecutors to live up to the word of the guidance and make the crucial changes needed in practice."

MP Ann Coffey, who is chairwoman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children, said aggressive cross-examination by defence barristers also needs to be tackled.

She said: "These new rules for prosecutors are massively important and welcome but the main problem for child victims is aggressive cross examination by defence barristers who set out to humiliate and destroy them. I want to see action to stop that.

"Tackling the problems in prosecuting child sexual abuse cases is just one half of the story but tackling the grotesque abuses by defence lawyers in court is the other half of the story that needs addressing.

"Barristers in child sex abuse cases must be stopped from manipulating child witnesses like puppets in the witness box. That is the single biggest thing that puts victims off coming forward and giving evidence. It is often not really cross examination of evidence at all, but is about smearing and breaking down the witness to get defendants off the hook."

Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry said it is not clear how much of the guidance will actually get used in practice.

"These proposals are a welcome effort to correct the over-cautious stance the CPS took in the Jimmy Savile and street-grooming cases," she said.

"However, the guidance contains a lot more "shoulds" than "musts" which makes it far from certain how much of this will actually get implemented.

"The latest independent inspection of the CPS painted a picture of an organisation that is understaffed, under-resourced and increasingly having to leave things to the last minute. Without doubting the good faith of prosecutors, this is hardly an environment suited to the uniform implementation of best practice."

Jessica Standley, an Abuse Lawyer at Slater & Gordon who are representing 72 of Savile's victims, welcomed the fact that the guidelines acknowledge victims may have come from difficult backgrounds.

She said: "We are pleased to see the guidelines recognise that victims frequently come from difficult backgrounds - people who have suffered a tough past are no less credible than anyone else.

"We represent 72 of Jimmy Savile's victims and they are encouraged that some positive reforms have been instigated. While these guidelines may not have prevented Savile's catalogue of horrific crimes, victims may have been more likely come forward earlier."

Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, said: "It takes immense courage for a victim to report these horrific crimes and it is vital they know prosecutors will focus on the credibility of their evidence not their perceived vulnerabilities.

"We welcome this move to confront the myths of child sexual abuse and to concentrate on the facts of the case and the behaviour of the offender.

"It is critical that victims are referred to support agencies at the earliest opportunity to cope with the aftermath of the crime and prepare for the trauma of a trial.

"We look forward to working with the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies to ensure these principles lead to a better experience at court for child sex abuse victims."

Alan Wardle from the NSPCC said the changes are a start, but not "the complete solution".

"These changes will start to make a positive difference for child sex abuse prosecutions which in the past have been dogged by difficulties," he said.

"It's imperative the utmost effort is made to ensure children get the right level of support in such cases and the Director of Public Prosecutions has given a strong lead in this area which we hope will be followed across the criminal justice system.

"The trauma of suffering sexual abuse should not be followed by a legal process that becomes a trial for the young victim. This is not the complete solution but it's certainly a solid and welcome start."


From Belfast Telegraph