Met Police payout for rape complainant

By June Kelly
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

image captionThe officers assigned to the case were part of Scotland Yard's specialist rape unit

A woman who made a rape complaint that was not properly investigated by police has reached an out-of-court settlement with Scotland Yard.

The woman reported the alleged attack aged 15, in 2005, but during the Met Police investigation evidence was lost.

The judge at the trial of her alleged attacker branded it a "disgrace". The defendant was later acquitted.

Scotland Yard, which is to pay out £15,000, has acknowledged the failings and said changes have been made since.

They agreed to the out-of-court settlement with no admission of liability.

'I was helpless'

Rebecca was 15 when she went to the police and reported she had been raped by a man in his late 20s.

She lives in south London and the officers assigned to her case were part of Scotland Yard's specialist rape unit based at Southwark, just one of a number of the Metropolitan Police's so-called Sapphire teams, which investigate sexual offences.

This was 2005 and at that time the Southwark Sapphire team was badly under-resourced. In Rebecca's case vital evidence was lost. The judge at the trial of her alleged attacker branded it a disgrace. The man she had accused was acquitted.

Looking back, Rebecca, which is not her real name, remembers: "I think I just felt really depressed about it and really upset because I just felt like I was helpless and I didn't have any trust in the legal system any more. I just sort of gave up."

It was the start of years of depression. She began taking heroin and on three occasions tried to kill herself.

"There were times when I tried to take my own life and I was on drugs and drinking loads of alcohol. I didn't really care about my own life any more," she says.

"But my mum was always the stable base, she was always like a rock for me, telling me that I couldn't give up and if it wasn't for my mum I probably would have given up a long time ago, so I just thank God for my mum."

Her mother Sally was determined police should be held to account.

"I used to be frightened to question my daughter's headmistress. Now I would stand up to the Queen.

"I have been to Scotland Yard, questioned MPs, it was scary, but when it involves your children you'd stand up to anyone."

Officers reprimanded

In 2009, three years after the alleged attacker walked free, four officers were reprimanded. Three received written warnings, a fourth was given what the police call "words of advice".

An internal Met report detailed how in the Southwark Sapphire team untrained officers were investigating rapes. They claimed their bosses had decided car crime was a greater priority than sex offences.

Later that year Sapphire teams across London were revamped and placed under one centralised Scotland Yard command. This followed police failings in the cases of two serial sex attackers - Kirk Reid and black-cab driver John Worboys.

Meanwhile, with the help of the charity Women Against Rape, Rebecca and her mother were still trying to get justice.

They enlisted lawyer Debaleena Dasgupta, who said they should try to bring a civil case against the Met Police.

She says: "There were some cases going on in the European Court of Human Rights which suggested that states had a duty to investigate rape under Article three of the Human Rights Act.

"There wasn't anything in the UK courts and actually there still isn't so it was still a bit tenuous but we tried to pull everything together. We were trying to establish that the police have a duty to victims of rape and sexual assault to investigate those crimes properly and that if they fail to do so it is a breach of the victim's human rights."

After the family's earlier bad experience with the police, Sally was astonished at what she feels were the rough tactics by Scotland Yard in the civil case.

She says: "They have behaved appallingly. My daughter was a victim. All she did was report a crime and she expected the service that anyone should expect.

"To be honest the way they fought it was really dirty and I just think they should have just held their hands up and said we're sorry.

"They did say they were sorry but in the next breath they were throwing everything up at us in court and it was pretty horrendous to go through and to have to listen to certain things.

"The resources they have spent in fighting us through the civil courts - had they put the same amount of effort into investigating my daughter's rape, I reckon he would probably have been found guilty."

It became clear Scotland Yard wanted to settle the case out of court initially offering £8,000, later doubled to £15,000.

This was higher than £5,000-6,000 awarded by European courts in similar human rights cases. Rebecca and her mother agreed very reluctantly to settle.

They say what they wanted was an admission Rebecca's human rights had been breached. But financially they could not risk fighting on as if they lost they would have been liable for massive costs. The Met's legal bills are estimated to have run into tens of thousands of pounds.

'Help others'

Sally says: "It's never been about the money for us. It feels a bit like we've been bought off, kind of like we've been given no option.

"But I guess this paves the way for other victims. It's been a nightmare but if this can change the life of one survivor then it's been worth it.

"I hope this can help other people and make the police realise they can't get away with treating people like this when they report rape."

And Ms Dasgupta adds: "I believe that the reason that such a high offer to settle this case was made was to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to refuse due to the financial risks of litigation.

"However such an offer would not have been made unless the police believed that my client had a very good case. If they believed they would win, they could have gone to trial and sought their costs."

And she goes on: "I think there are a lot of very good, very dedicated officers out there and in this case there were a few officers who were trying really hard and they were being stopped from doing proper investigations because the resources were being taken out of their department by people higher up than them.

"What we actually hope that police officers will be able to say I need these resources to investigate this rape and if they are getting refusals from people above them they can point to this case and say we could be liable."

In a statement, Scotland Yard acknowledged the failings in Rebecca's case.

In response to criticisms of their tactics in the civil case, they said: "We are aware of the victim's comments of distress at the legal proceedings and that some legal arguments may have appeared insensitive to the victim, but that is not the intention of the Metropolitan Police Service.

"We want victims to have the confidence that we are here for them, will believe them and will conduct our investigations professionally.

"To improve our service Sapphire moved under the command of the Specialist Crime Directorate in September 2009, with the aim of providing a more consistent service to victims whose care and well-being is at the heart of each investigation."

Since Rebecca's case there have been other more recent complaints about the Southwark Sapphire unit. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has been investigating and its report is due in the New Year.