Oh dear, it seems the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can’t win. First they were villified for not bringing a case against Jimmy Saville during his lifetime. Now they are being criticised because they did bring ultimately unsuccessful cases against Dave Lee Travis and Bill Roache. Meanwhile Operation Yewtree, the police enquiry set up in the wake of the posthumous Saville allegations, is being derided as a celebrity “witch hunt”.
The Saville, Roache and Lee Travis cases of course all depend on their own circumstances. I’m not going to comment on the merits of individual cases. What I do want to discuss is the basis on which decisions to prosecute and not prosecute are made, and in particular, the significant influence of the High Court over the way such decisions are made in sex cases.
Generally, decisions whether to commence criminal proceedings are made on the basis of at test laid down in the Code for Crown Prosecutors, the “Evidential Stage test” or “the realistic prospect of conviction test”.
It provides that a case must only go ahead if prosecutors believe an “impartial and reasonable jury… acting in accordance with the law is more likely than not to convict the defendant…”.
In other words: the chances of a conviction have got to be 51% or better. But note the other very important element to the test: it requires prosecutors to assume the jury will be impartial and will act in accordance with the law. In cases involving well-loved celebrities and historic allegations from what might be described as a bygone age that might be a big ask.
In any event, that is the test prosecutors must apply. However, in relation to sex cases, since 2009 it has been given an additional “spin” by the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court. It arises out of the case of R(FB) v DPP.
“FB”, as it is known, was a very sad case. The complainant, FB, who has never been identified, was the victim of a serious attack: his ear was bitten off. He went to the police, identified his assailant and picked him out on an identity procedure.
However, FB had a history of mental illness. An expert said he suffered from hallucinations. It’s clear the CPS wrestled for some time with its conflicting obligations to disclose to the defendant’s legal team material which might assist him; to protect FB’s privacy, including his confidential medical records; and to put the defendant through a trial only where the case passed the Evidential Stage test. The deeply unfortunate result was that FB attended court on what was intended to be the first day of the trial only to be told the case had been dropped and a verdict of Not Guilty returned against the defendant.
FB instructed solicitors who went to the High Court. The court found that the CPS’s decision to drop the case had been “irrational” under their own guidance, and had breached the state’s duty to provide protection to persons suffering ill-treatment at the hands of others. FB was awarded £8,000 compensation. The Not Guilty verdict returned against the defendant remained, of course, unaffected.
The significance for the CPS’s future practice was twofold: first of all it established that decisions not to pursue those suspected of criminal offences were susceptible to judicial review. Secondly, the High Court said that the CPS’s Evidential Stage test must be interpreted differently in certain types of cases. The relevant part of the judgment is worth quoting in full:
“49. There was also discussion whether in applying the “realistic prospect of conviction test” a prosecutor should adopt a “bookmaker’s approach” (as it was referred to in argument) or should imagine himself to be the fact finder and ask himself whether, on balance, the evidence was sufficient to merit a conviction taking into account what he knew about the defence case. In many cases it would make no difference, but in some it might. Mr Perry QC submitted that the latter was the correct approach…I agree with Mr Perry.
50. There are some types of case where it is notorious that convictions are hard to obtain, even though the officer in the case and the crown prosecutor may believe that the complainant is truthful and reliable. So-called “date rape” cases are an obvious example. If the crown prosecutor were to apply a purely predictive approach based on past experience of similar cases (the bookmaker’s approach), he might well feel unable to conclude that a jury was more likely than not to convict the defendant. But for a crown prosecutor effectively to adopt a corroboration requirement in such cases, which Parliament has abolished, would be wrong. On the alternative “merits based” approach, the question whether the evidential test was satisfied would not depend on statistical guesswork.”
In other words: in certain types of cases, where prosecutors know from their experience that on the evidence before them the jury is likely to acquit the defendant, but where the prosecutor nevertheless believes the complainant, they should proceed with the case – notwithstanding that on the balance of probabilities they expect that the jury will ultimately find the defendant Not Guilty.
The High Court having authoritatively interpreted the Evidential Stage test in this way the CPS has had no choice but to incorporate it into their official guidelines in dealing with sex cases.
It’s worth comparing the words of the High Court in FB with the note sent to the trial judge by the jury in the Dave Lee Travis case after two days of deliberations, and before returning Not Guilty verdicts on 12 out of 14 counts:
‘…[the prosecutor], in summing up, said if we believe that the complainant was telling the truth, then we must find the defendant guilty. Can you give us any guidance on how that should be weighed with the lack of supporting evidence and the passage of time so we are sure beyond reasonable doubt?’
It seems to me therefore that the Dave Lee Travis jury was troubled by precisely the same doubts – i.e. lack of corroborating evidence – that the High Court said prosecutors should ignore when deciding what cases to bring.
Personally I’m not sure that the gloss put on the Evidential Stage test by the High Court in FB is correct or helpful. My worry is that it may lead to the running of weak cases when allegations of sexual misconduct are concerned. The High Court described the alternative as the “bookmakers approach”. If that means, as well as can be done, a cool and objective estimation of whether the chances of success are 51% or above, and if not, dropping the case; perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Let me explain why:
First of all it seems anomalous to have one test for whether to charge defendants in the general run of cases, and what amounts at least to a “different interpretation” of the test for sex cases.
Secondly, with respect, I’d suggest that the High Court risked engaging in a little “statistical guesswork” itself when saying that convictions are hard to obtain in certain types of cases. Certainly no empirical evidence to this effect was referred to in the judgment. In my opinion, it is not that convictions are hard to obtain in certain types of cases, it is that convictions are hard to obain in cases where the evidence is essentially one person’s word against another – and sex cases are more likely that others to fall into that category. But they are not the only kind of case where this problem applies: FB itself wasn’t a sex case, but one of wounding with intent, the kind of case that is a staple of CPS work. It’s hard therefore to see why the problem of the evidence being one person’s word against another should be treated differently depending on the nature of the allegation.
A point made by the High Court was that prosecutors should not adopt what was described as “a corroboration requirement which Parliament has abolished”. I’m not quite sure to what this was intended to refer. There was an old rule requiring corroboration, but it applied to a very narrow category of cases, not including rape or indecent assault.
The wider corroboration rules, which is what I believe the High Court had in mind, did not concern whether cases should be brought or not, but simply required judges to warn juries in cases where there was no corroboration. They were abolished in 1995.
My point, therefore, is that adopting a “probability-based” interpretation of the Evidential Stage test would not be to restore a corroboration requirement as abolished by Parliament, because, in relation to rape and indecent assault certainly, there never was such a corroboration requirement in the first place.
Rape and other sexual offences are horrible crimes that can damage people for life. Having read the heart-rending accounts of many complainants in such cases I don’t need anyone to convice me of that. I can also speak with some authority on the subject of how difficult it can be to make a decision to prosecute or not prosecute a case. It is very tempting, when reading moving accounts from complainants, to feel that not to take on their case would be a betrayal of them. It’s very tempting to think “Well, we’ll let it run and see what happens”. That is why the strictures of the Evidential Stage test are so important: it really does no-one any favours to build up a victim’s hopes, to put them through months of anxiety about giving evidence, to oblige them to relive their experiences in the witness box, where there is not even a 50/50 chance of a conviction – whatever the type of case and the good intentions of the prosecutors.
The CPS works within the confines of our criminal justice system and part of that system is that juries are instructed in the firmest terms: unless you are sure the defendant is guilty you must acquit him. That is obviously what was concerning the jury in the Dave Lee Travis case.
I don’t know the details of the Bill Roache or Dave Lee Travis cases: whether they were apparently weak cases, strong cases or somewhere in between. Whatever the merits, they at least serve as an opportunity to consider the guidance given to prosecutors in such cases. In my opinion there is an argument that such guidance should be consistent with guidance in other cases: that everything must be done to build a case, to gather all available evidence, but once that has been done – if there is not a better than evens chance of achieving a conviction that case should not be run.
By David Allan, a barrister specialising in the criminal law.
Follow David on Twitter: @DavidAllanLegal