Sex trials and punishment

Jimmy SavileIt started with the news that much loved TV presenter Jimmy Saville was actually a predatory paedophile that abused his position of power at the BBC to molest young vulnerable girls and get away with it.

That revelation has turned out to be the opening of Pandora’s box with many more allegations coming out of the wood work since. All manner of celebrities have been accused and this has now led to charges being brought against the likes of Michael Le Vell, Bill Roache, Dave Lee Travis and Rolf Harris to name but a few. Several generations are in complete disbelief that their childhood idols may not have been as innocent as they believed.

This whole sorry scenario has opened up more cans of worms than on an Indiana Jones set. Questions have to be asked about the behaviour of public organisations in concealing allegations and why the police ignored them at the time. It also opens up wider debate about how the Civil Justice system works in Britain in relation to sex crime allegations and that is my point of focus here.

The burden of proof

We are fortunate enough to live in a country where we believe everyone has a right to a fair trial. To be found guilty of a crime the onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that you have committed the offence. It is not the responsibility of the defence to prove innocence but to prove their is sufficient doubt to warrant a conviction being unreasonable.

In reality, no justice system is perfect and guilty people walk free from courts every single day because the prosecution has been unable to provide sufficient evidence to remove doubt. There are also cases where the law has been applied incorrectly or the defence have not presented their case well enough to counter the evidence and innocent people have been convicted. Injustices are always going to occur in any judicial system but at least we have the principals right that no man or woman should be convicted of a crime with the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.

Low conviction rates for sex crimes

According to the Independent 1, fewer than one in thirty rape cases result in a conviction in the UK. This has sparked an outrage and many are asking why the conviction rate is so low but the answer is actually quite a simple one. It’s the burden of proof required to secure a conviction.

Even before we get to court, many victims decide not to proceed with their cases in the first place because going to court requires the victim to be cross-examined by the defence and that is a very unpleasant experience. The defence must be allowed to call into question the integrity and character of the alleged victim just as the prosecution will call into question the behaviour of the alleged perpetrator in order to set the scene for the jury but this can be a very traumatic experience for all parties involved.

For many victims, going to court is as bad as the assault itself. They’re made to relive every moment and with the fear that they won’t be believed. They are every bit as much in the dock as the defendant. There have been calls to make the process easier for victims but it still has to be counterbalanced with the right of the defendant to a fair trial. After all, the victim will walk free from the courtroom, albeit battle-scarred but the defendant may not see freedom again if convicted.

So assuming a case gets to court in the first place, it is very difficult to prove a sexual assault has occurred. According to RAINN 2, two thirds of victims are known by their assailants. Without CCTV evidence or witnesses cases tend to come down to the word of the victim versus the word of the accused. Under those circumstances it is almost impossible to put forward a compelling enough case to prove the assault beyond all reasonable doubt, as was the case in the recent trials of Michael Le Vell and Bill Roache.

DNA is not a magic bullet

DNA often plays a role in the criminal justice system but it does not help in a case where the perpetrator admits that sexual contact occurred but that it was consensual. Sex is a normal part of adult life, proving that sex occurred is not the same thing as proving a rape has occurred – it all comes down to consent and the word of one over another. Obviously there are circumstances where the law states that consent cannot occur such as where the victim is a child or is otherwise intoxicated to the extent that they are no longer capable of consenting.

DNA is only useful in circumstances where the defendant denies sexual contact with the victim. It does not prove rape but it cast aspersions as to the character of the accused. If they’re lying about contact, what else are they lying about?

No statute of limitation

One of the interesting things about a lot of the case brought about as a result of operation Yew Tree is the fact that many of the alleged offences occurred fifty years ago. Britain is unique in that there is no statue of limitation for sexual offences. This is a double-edged sword. It means that those who committed crimes many years ago can never rest easy knowing that they’ve got away with their crimes and can no longer be prosecuted but it also means that cases have been brought to court with no realistic chance of conviction given the dubious nature of the evidence.

Fifty years is a very long time. If I was asked to recall an event from ten years ago, particularly if it was an event that held little significance to me, I would have difficulty doing so and our brains are very good at filling in gaps in memory with distorted assumptions. In fact, if you asked someone to write down an account of an incident at a specific point in time every year, I’m sure that incident would be recalled slightly differently each time to the point where it seems like a game of Chinese whispers.

Add into the mix how the ageing process affects our abilities to recall information, you can see how any witness testimony given to an event that occurred many years ago can be considered unreliable at best. At some point you have to draw a line in the sand and say too much time has elapsed for a fair trial to occur. There may have been documented evidence available to support the prosecution or defences case that is no longer available after so many years and this could adversely affect the outcome of the case and this is why I was very surprised that the Crown Prosecution Service deemed it in the public interest to prosecute in some of the cases of historic allegations as part of operation Yew Tree.

Time changes a lot of things. The attitudes, behaviours, fashions and technologies of the 1960s are not really comparable to today. If we could take a trip in a time machine and take our legislation back to the 1960s and prosecute offenders, everyone would end up with a conviction. In the 1960s there were clubs held in the basements of buildings with no fire escapes and in the event of fire, catastrophe would have been inevitable. With today’s health and safety legislation, the organisers would find themselves in hot water before they even opened their doors.

In the 1960s, you could be prosecuted for homosexuality, in 2014, gay people can get married. To me it seems wrong to retrospectively apply our societies morality on to alleged crimes committed in very different times. That is not to say that we have to accept the behaviours of that era as acceptable today but we should tread carefully in our judgement.

I am not saying that sex crimes were ever deemed acceptable  but incidents such as a pinch on the backside may have just been seen as playful back then but deemed as sexual assault now. It is easier to look back at our formative years and identify behaviours that if occurring today would be seen in a differing light to the times in which they occurred. None of us have time machines. We can’t travel fifty years into the future to find out how our actions today would be perceived in order to make sure we don’t break any future accepted conventions.

The groupie culture

After the aftermath of the Second World War died down, and rationing restrictions were lifted, the emergence of a new group of people started to evolve. Previously, you were either a child or an adult and nothing in between but during the 1950s the adolescent  years were born. Increased prosperity and optimism meant that teens found themselves with a disposable income for the first time. Popular cultures such as the worlds of fashion, music and cinema as we know them today started to emerge and with it came the dawn of the era of celebrities.

Young people were attracted to their music idols and it was much easier to get close to these acts than it is today. Attitudes towards sex were changing and teenage girls would dress to look older than they were. For the celebrities of their day it must have been a very exciting time being followed around by screaming groupies who were besotted with you. It was a relationship that worked both ways. For the girls, the attention of a pop star would make their otherwise dreary lives seem very exciting and make them feel special. It was something to tell their friends. Maybe even a way to make some money by selling their story or a chance to live their aspirations, becoming a star’s girlfriend.

I am not condoning celebrities exploiting vulnerable under-age girls in any way shape or form but age is just a number and we all mature physically at different rates. It is almost impossible to look at someone and accurately guess their age so if a girl lies about her age or attends an event that she should not be attending as a child then its easy to see how people could unwittingly break the law.

This is very different from the grooming behaviour of someone like Jimmy Saville who knew full well the age and vulnerabilities of his victims and it’s important we draw a clear distinction between these two types of behaviours.

Even now, the groupie culture still exists and there will be celebrities out there that are being targeted and exploited by young girls that want to make a name for themselves. Each case needs to be judged by its own merit. The law is black and white. It’s illegal to engage in sexual activity with a child, and rightly so but life isn’t black and white, people lie, people can look older than their age. Common sense needs to be applied.

No smoke without fire

Once someone has been accused of a crime as serious as a sexual assault, even if not convicted, the damage to their reputation is permanent. Not only have Michael Le Vell and Bill Roache had their private lives publicly dissected but the suspicion of doubt will remain for the rest of their lives. False allegations can ruin lives, so surely if the victims retain the right to remain anonymity then so should the accused until they are convicted?

This is not just about pride and employment prospects but safety. Sex crimes, particularly those committed against children provoke a lot of public outrage, quite understandably. There is an element of society that take it upon themselves to meter out their own interpretation of justice. People have been viciously attacked just because they look like someone who has committed such an appalling crime and there is a danger that the lure of a celebrity being accused of such offences would be too much for vigilante types to resist.


  1. Shockingly low convition rates revealed
  2. Sexual Assault Statistics