In a widely reported interview on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show last weekend Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, told Andrew Marr that ‘victims of sexual offences have been afraid of reporting them because police have asked ‘the wrong questions’ (PDF). The DPP went on to talk about the ‘fundamental shift’ in how victims had been treated in recent years. This has now been ratified in the new CPS guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse (PDF).
‘If you go into a police station and report a burglary the first question is not “are you telling the truth?” but that, if you are the victim of a sexual offence, very often in the past that has been the first question,’ Starmer said. He said that the Crown Prosecution Service had ‘done a huge amount of work to change that’ on the basis that if ‘victims’ knew that ‘you will come in, give your account and then there’ll be a proper investigation’, it would give them more confidence to come forward. Prosecutors have been told to focus on the credibility of allegations, not on whether victims make good witnesses. The change was introduced after it emerged that some of Jimmy Savile’s victims were reluctant to pursue their individual complaint because they thought they were the only accuser.
Whilst Starmer’s comments might have popular appeal, from the perspective of innocent people who have been wrongly accused and sometimes convicted of such offences, the remarks he has made and the shifts in policy are extremely disturbing.
The facts are that while some of the people who make allegations will be telling the truth, some will be telling complete lies and some will (for a variety of reasons) be making inaccurate or exaggerated claims. That ought to be the default position in all investigations – including those alleging sexual assault, and the one on which the police should base its investigation.
It is one thing for Starmer to suggest that the police should start the process by asking themselves if the allegation is believable but quite another to suggest that complainants must be believed. They must only be believed if the evidence (eventually) points that way and it therefore is quite proper and even necessary to ask whether what the complainant is saying is not only the truth but the whole truth. That is proper policing. This is even more necessary in cases of alleged sexual assault because (despite suggestions to the contrary) it is relatively easy to make such an allegation.
Sadly the police themselves have been caught up in this debate and seem to many people to have long abandoned their role as ‘truth seekers’. What matters to them, it seems, is to get sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution – regardless of the truth. This is not good enough.
How can you possibly test the credibility of allegations without questioning at some stage, if not from the outset, whether the complainant is telling the truth.
For those of us who have been falsely accused Starmer’s failure to distinguish between complainants and victims will come as no surprise. What Starmer has so eloquently demonstrated is that, paradoxically, he is in denial. Sometimes false allegations are made.
Some of those people who make allegations of sexual assault (including in historical cases) will be telling the truth. But it has now become very easy for allegations to be made that are fabricated or based on false memories or exaggerated or inaccurate representations of actions which were not criminal but which complainants can now be confident will be treated as such. Only a full investigation of the facts that support the allegation and the facts that run contrary to it will have any chance of establishing the truth.