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Sexual abuse victims are failed by the system.

Kier Starmer, who is the former head of public prosecutions, has written an article in The Guardian explaining why he thinks the justice system is currently failing vulnerable victims. In particular his article focuses on individuals who have suffered sexual abuse.

According to Mr Starmer there has been increasing focus on the way victims of personal abuse are treated by the system following high profile cases such as the Jimmy Saville revelations and comprehensive reports by official bodies. The most recent of these reports came last week from the HM Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) where it was published that there is huge inconsistency between the approach taken by regional police forces to rape allegations and that there has been a national drop in the number of prosecutions for rape and domestic violence.

Whilst Mr Starmer acknowledges that improvements are being made to the way victims of abuse are treated within the criminal justice system, there are several alarming issues which need to be addressed:

Data has shown that many victims have so little confidence in our justice system that they believe it is not worth even reporting abuse. When asked why they felt this way a common response was that they assumed officials would doubt their story.

The current system is reactive rather than pro-active. Mr Starmer uses Female Genital Mutilation, which was criminalised in practice in 1985, as an example. He explains that currently little girls will not receive help unless they walk into a Police station “and tell a strange adult what her mummy and daddy had allowed someone to do to her”, and that obviously the likelihood of that happening is not very high.

At present Police and prosecutors adopt a crude approach to deciding whether a victim will be believed in Court. According to Starmer they focus on inappropriate questions such as whether the crime was reported quickly, whether the victim was able to give a full and accurate account when first questioned and whether drinks / drugs are involved. Mr Starmer explains that this search for the model victim is completely counter-productive because a large percentage of people who are vulnerable to abuse have trust issues with authority and may well be dependent on alcohol and drugs.

Even when a case reaches the courtroom victims feel that they are treated with such suspicion and aggression by advocates that they vow never to repeat the experience and they would rather let a perpetrator go free than go back to court.

Vicky Wright of Swain & Co says, “All of the above demonstrates that for victims the current system is “not fit for purpose” and what is needed is a complete overhaul of the current system and a “fundamental rethink” in order to produce an effective and comprehensive ‘Victims’ Law’."

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