Ireland can learn from poor handling of Savile complaints
In mid-January a special report by Alison Levitt QC, principal legal adviser to the director of public prosecutions in England and Wales, was published. The report dealt with how the Crown Prosecution Service handled four complaints of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile. It is surprising that the report, and the response to it of director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer, have received such little coverage in Ireland.
The first of the four complaints against Savile was made to Surrey police in 2007 by a woman sexually abused by him in 1977 at a children’s home in Duncroft when she was 14 or 15. In the Surrey police’s investigations of her complaint, two more allegations came to light: one that in 1973 Savile sexually assaulted another 14-year-old girl at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and another that in the 1970s he suggested to a 17-year-old in Duncroft Children’s Home that she perform a sexual act on him.
Separately, in March 2008, a complaint was made to Sussex police alleging that in about 1970 Savile sexually assaulted a young woman in her early 20s in a caravan. While this complaint was being investigated, Sussex police became aware of the Surrey police investigation, and vice versa.
Reluctant to give evidence
When the investigation files were sent to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration, it was decided not to proceed with prosecutions because the women were “not prepared to support police action”. They did not want to go to court, were reluctant to give evidence and, it seems, intimidated by his celebrity.
Levitt reviewed the files on the original investigations in 2007 and 2008, spoke to some of the police and the prosecution service official involved, and also to three of the four women who made complaints. She found nothing to suggest the decisions not to prosecute were consciously influenced by any improper motive.
However, she found the police and prosecutor treated the complainants and their accounts “with a degree of caution which was neither justified nor required”.
Among the consequences of this unjustified caution were the decision of Surrey police not to tell each of the women that other complaints had been made, and the fact that Sussex police told the women whose complaints they were investigating that corroboration was needed. Levitt was also critical of the fact the person making the decision on the files in the Crown Prosecution Service, when told by the police that the complaints did not support prosecution, did “not probe this or seek to build a prosecution” otherwise.
The women told Levitt in 2012 that if they had been given more information in 2007 and, in particular, if they had been told other women had complained about Savile, they would probably have been prepared to give evidence.
Levitt’s ultimate conclusion is that had the police and prosecution taken a different approach, a prosecution might have been possible in relation to three of the four allegations.
Her report is impressive but the reaction of Starmer is even more interesting. He apologised for the shortcomings in his office’s handling of the cases but drew a wider message for other cases involving victims of sex abuse.
Starmer said the report on the handling of the Savile complaints should be a watershed moment, adding: “In my view, these cases do not simply reflect errors of judgment by individual officers or prosecutors . . . These were errors of judgment by experienced and committed police officers and a prosecuting lawyer acting in good faith and attempting to apply the correct principles. That makes the findings of Ms Levitt’s report more profound and calls for a more robust response.”
In Starmer’s view, police and prosecutors approach sexual assault cases differently from other cases, exercising an unjustified degree of caution. This, he says, can mean a prosecution for a true complaint may not take place.
Those complaining of sexual offences, Starmer says, are “being subjected to a different and, in reality, more rigorous test”. Some people feel, he said, that for sexual offences where it is “one person’s word against another’s” and there is little other evidence, no prosecution should be brought. This, he points out, ignores the reality that sexual offences do not usually take place in front of witnesses or result in meaningful scientific evidence.
Starmer argues for a dramatic change in the approach to credibility in sexual assault cases. New guidelines are to be introduced. For historical complaints, joint policing and prosecution service panels are being established to advise on reinvestigating complaints. It could reopen thousands of cases.
The Jimmy Savile revelations have forced change in the handling of such cases in England and Wales. These changes raise interesting issues for lawyers, police and policymakers in Ireland.