Keir Starmer says new child abuse trial guidelines are 'biggest shift for generation'

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer Keir Starmer said the guidelines would "stand the test of time."

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Final guidance on the prosecution of cases involving child sexual abuse in England and Wales has been published.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said it represented the biggest shift in attitude across the criminal justice system "for a generation".

Under the guidelines, prosecutors are told to focus on the credibility of allegations, not on whether victims make good witnesses.

All suspects will also be investigated to see if they possess indecent images.

Common 'myths and stereotypes'

  • The victim invited sex by the way they dressed or acted
  • The victim used alcohol or drugs and was therefore sexually available
  • The victim did not scream, fight or protest so must have been consenting
  • The victim did not complain immediately, so it can't have been a sexual assault
  • The victim is in a relationship with the alleged offender and is therefore a willing sexual partner
  • A victim should remember events consistently
  • Children can consent to their own sexual exploitation
  • Child sexual abuse is only a problem in certain ethnic/cultural communities
  • Only girls and young women are victims of child sexual abuse
  • Children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are not abused
  • There will be physical evidence of abuse

The guidelines cover how victims should be treated and how a case should be built and presented in court.

The BBC's legal correspondent Clive Coleman said it was "something of a watershed moment".

Victims have previously been disbelieved or discouraged, he said, but the new guidelines represented a move towards a "more sophisticated knowledge of psychology".

Preconceptions challenged

A list of "myths and stereotypes" about behaviour previously thought to negatively impact the credibility of young victims has also been included, so the use of such preconceptions can be challenged in court by prosecutors.

The list includes inconsistencies in what the victim remembers and whether they were drunk or wearing revealing clothes.

A joint protocol for information sharing in child sexual abuse cases has also been published alongside the guidelines, in which police and prosecutors are expected to share information with social services, schools and family courts.

The publishing of the final guidelines follows a three-month public consultation and takes immediate effect. The information for joint protocol will come into force in England and Wales on 1 January 2014.

Kevin Griffiths was abused at a Rochdale care home as a teenager in the 1960s by Sir Cyril Smith

Changes were sought after there were complaints that too many cases had been dropped before trial because of fears that the allegations would not stand up to scrutiny.

One of the most serious recent prosecutions of sex abuse and street grooming - in which 10 men were convicted - was initially shelved because of doubts over the credibility of the victims as witnesses.

TV and radio presenter Jimmy Savile was not prosecuted when he was alive and, more recently, a row erupted after a prosecutor called a 13-year-old victim "predatory".

Analysis

These guidelines are forged in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile scandal and recent cases of child 'sexual grooming', where the treatment of victims by the criminal justice system was a matter of shame.

They were simply too often disbelieved or discouraged. What the guidelines amount to is the criminal justice system acquiring, some would say very late in the day, a more sophisticated understanding of the psychology underlying the sexual abuse of children.

There is a recognition that there is no such thing as a 'model' victim, and that those who have been abused may present with a raft of problems and issues born out of their experience. So, what the guidelines describe as 'myths and stereotypes' about victims will be routinely challenged.

Published alongside, and as important as the guidelines, is a joint protocol for information sharing in child abuse cases.

Police and prosecutors are now expected to share and seek appropriate information about vulnerable youngsters with and from social services, schools and family courts ie those bodies that have contact with children and where harm being done to them might be recognised and recorded, and can be shared with police and prosecutors in building cases.

For example, if a child first presents at school with behaviour or an account of events that is disturbing, it might be best recorded by a teacher and put on file. That could be crucial evidence at trial.

Mr Starmer said: "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."

Indecent images

Mr Starmer said that because the guidelines were the result of discussions with judges, the police, experts, victims' representatives and the government, they would "stand the test of time".

He said that because "possession of indecent images of children has been found to be a common feature" of child sexual abuse cases the police would now investigate it in every case of child sexual abuse.

The guidelines will also highlight a number of ways victims of abuse can be manipulated and blackmailed to keep quiet, which include threats to publish indecent images or implicating victims in other offences.

They also seek to raise awareness of how victims in some ethnic communities are controlled by offenders who might use notions of "honour" or "shame" to deter them.

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry said it was not clear how much of the guidance would 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."

Sarah Kelly from abuse support charity NAPAC said she "hugely welcomed" the report

The NSPCC's Alan Wardle said the changes "will start to make a positive difference for child sex abuse prosecutions which in the past have been dogged by difficulties".

The Deputy Children's Commissioner for England, Sue Berelowitz, said the CPS had "worked hard to improve the experiences of child witnesses and increase the likelihood of securing convictions by ensuring that judges and juries better understand the psychological and emotional impact on victims of their appalling experiences".

The Chief Executive of the Survivors Trust, Fay Maxted, welcomed the new approach. She told BBC Radio 5 Live: "It is at least now saying that we need to stop focusing on questioning whether the victim is telling the truth and actually look at what they're saying has happened and investigate that."

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