Rape and crimes against the disabled: the state admits it should do moreThe law officers and the director of public prosecutions both try to remedy a problem
Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, admits more needs to be done to tackle crimes against the disabled.
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PATo view the original article CLICK HERE
The press can be unforgiving when it comes to the failure of the authorities to protect victims from crime. And two types of crime in particular – crimes against disabled people, and rape – attract particularly vehement criticism in this paper and others victims are let down by the authorities.
Sometimes the authorities bite back. This week, the law officers – the attorney and solicitor general – are in court referring four rape cases to the court of appeal on the basis that the sentences are unduly lenient.
The power to refer "unduly lenient" sentences is exercised in about 100 cases a year, and essentially involves cases in which the law officers think the sentencing judge messed up. Or to use the official language, the sentence given in the crown court "falls outside the range of sentences which the judge, applying his mind to all the relevant factors, could reasonably consider appropriate".
When it comes to the rapes that fall into this category, they are by definition the kind of offence that represents every woman's worst nightmare. The man who breaks into a stranger's home in the middle of the night, the student who binds, gags and rapes another student in their university halls of residence, photographing her ordeal, or the man who poses as a parcel delivery man, armed with a self-assembled "rape kit" to attack an unsuspecting woman at the front door. These are three examples of rape cases presented by the solicitor general in the court of appeal this week, arguing for a tougher sentence.
There have been various criticisms of this system – not least the fact that there is an element of randomness in the cases that get referred. The law places the burden of deciding which cases to appeal on the law officers, and they in turn rely on victims and prosecutors to prompt them.
Attempts to expand the powers to refer unduly lenient sentences were resisted under former attorney general Lord Goldsmith in part on the basis that the court of appeal couldn't handle the additional workload, although that seems a questionable legal foundation for deciding which cases get sent back to court and which don't.
Referring unduly lenient sentences doesn't really count as the state admitting it got things wrong – the law officers can place the blame squarely at the feet of the trial judge. But it is – imperfect or not – one mechanism by which the state seeks to correct mistakes.
And then there are those who will admit that the state gets things wrong. The director of public prosecutions has just made a speech admitting that the authorities "are still in the foothills when it comes to disability hate crime and supporting victims and witnesses with disabilities". Speaking at the University of Sussex, Keir Starmer has acknowledged that disabled people lack confidence in the criminal justice system, and that prosecutors have to do their part in reversing that.
Starmer cites figures that in London, almost double the number of disabled people have suffered some sort of harassment or crime than people without disabilities. Research by Mencap demonstrates that 90% of people with a learning disability had experienced bullying and harassment.
Yet only 506 people were charged with hate crimes against disabled people last year, compared to 9.214 for religious and racially aggravated crimes. And Starmer admits that the kind of incidents reported by the Guardian where both the police and prosecutors have humiliated disabled people by failing to take them seriously, are part of the problem.
But he also points out, and I agree, how complex the issue can be. For example, Starmer referred to another story in the Guardian about a man named Jim Watts, featured in our miscarriages of justice section "Justice on Trial". Watts is challenging the safety of his conviction after he was convicted of sexual assaults on severely disabled women after the victims gave their evidence by blinking or pressing buttons on their wheelchairs to indicate 'yes' or 'no'. His lawyers are arguing that their testimony is "unreliable".
Starmer on the other hand, presents this as the way forward for prosecutors, who should be doing more to enable disabled people to be heard by the courts and have cases againt them taken seriously.
There is no trade-off between rights of victims to be treated fairly and rights of defendants to have a fair trial – both are equally important and this is one of the issues that flags up how difficult that can be. But to have a chief prosecutor who admits that a dilemma and a problem exists, is at least a breath of fresh air.
'Open the curtains, throw open the windows and permit the light of investigation and fresh air into family courts and sexual, emotional and physical abuse of the vulnerable - expose the abuse & the abuse of authority of those acting in OUR name! No child asked to be or enjoys abuse, it is for the gratification of the inadequate'.
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