Victims of the “vile” offence of human trafficking who become involved in crime should have their cases dealt with by the justice system with the “greatest sensitivity”, leading judges said today.
Heads of human rights organisations have welcomed new guidelines issued by judges, which they believe will protect victims who “need our support, not our condemnation”.
New guidance was given by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and two other judges at the Court of Appeal in London as the convictions of four victims of human trafficking were quashed in a court today. At the centre of the changes were appeals from London's Blackfriars Crown Court, Nottingham Crown Court, Bristol Crown Court and Harrow Crown Court in Middlesex.
Three of the cases involved children who became involved in offences relating to growing cannabis and the fourth involved an adult woman from Uganda who said she had been held captive and forced into prostitution for several years.
The judge said the four were victims of a “vile trade in people” and should not have been prosecuted.
The Court of Appeal overturned their convictions and issued guidance to courts about how potential trafficking victims should be treated by the criminal justice system.
According to the BBC, one of the children, who is now 18-years-old said he had been brought to England in a freezer container. In 2011 he told police he was arrested at a property in Bristol where cannabis was being grown.
The court found his criminal activities were "integral" to his status as a trafficked child.
Another of the victims was discovered tending to cannabis plants in Harrow in 2009 after escaping from the care of Kent County Council two years earlier.
He was sentenced for two years in a young offenders institution.
Lord Judge said: “The criminality, or putting it another way, the culpability, of any victim of trafficking may be significantly diminished, and in some cases effectively extinguished, not merely because of age - always a relevant factor in the case of a child defendant - but because no realistic alternative was available to the exploited victim but to comply with the dominant force of another individual, or group of individuals.”
He said trafficked women and children are often forced to commit a wide range of offences, and said they were all "victims of crime".
He added: This is how they must be treated and, in the vast majority of cases, they are - but not always.”
Klara Skrivankova, programme coordinator for Anti-Slavery International's Trafficking Programme described the guidelines as a “milestone” in ensuring victims of trafficking are protected against criminalisation.
“We know there are hundreds of cases of men, women and children trafficked into the UK for forced criminality and many of them end up being prosecuted instead of the traffickers,” she said.
“It's the traffickers who should be afraid of punishment for exploitation of others instead.”
Lord Judge said what was required when deciding whether to proceed with a decision to prosecute in trafficking cases was a “level of protection from prosecution or punishment for trafficked victims who have been compelled to commit criminal offences".
"What, however, is clearly established, and numerous different papers, reports and decided cases have demonstrated, is that when there is evidence that victims of trafficking have been involved in criminal activities, the investigation and the decision whether there should be a prosecution, and, if so, any subsequent proceedings require to be approached with the greatest sensitivity."
The Equality and Human Rights Commission's deputy director Wendy Hewitt said after the ruling: "Trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery and a serious violation of human rights.
“This judgment will have a significant effect on the way child victims are dealt with by the criminal justice system and reinforces the fact that a primary concern must be the best interests of the child.”
Chloe Setter, head of Advocacy, Campaigns and Policy, at the children's charity ECPAT UK, said: “The court has made it clear that these prosecutions should never have taken place and the four highly vulnerable victims should not have been treated as criminals and unfairly punished. Today's judgment reinforced the Government's responsibility to identify, protect and safeguard trafficked children, such as those seen in these cases - children who have been ruthlessly exploited for the financial gain of others and need our support, not our condemnation.”
Additional reporting by Press Association