Complainants in rape cases should receive greater levels of support even if a jury finds their alleged attacker not guilty, it was claimed today. Calls for a “root and branch” reform of the system dealing with alleged victims post-verdict follow the apparent suicide of a woman who gave evidence in two court cases against a man who was later acquitted of any wrongdoing.
Tracy Shelvey, 41, died on Monday after falling from a car park in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. It is understood she had been severely affected by the courtroom experience and had been battling alcohol problems.
Ms Shelvey was one of six women to claim they were attacked by former soldier Patrick Hall. He was found not guilty by a jury Minshull Street Crown Court in Manchester in June 2013 on a variety of charges including three counts of rape, sexual assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment.
The jury was discharged in the case of the three others and at the retrial last month a new panel found the defendant not guilty on all charges.
The tragedy comes following an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Independent which revealed a dramatic decline in the number of rape cases being referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Ms Shelvey claimed she was attacked by a man in a car as she walked home in September 2011.
In a statement her family described her as a “strong person with a lot of pride”. They added: “She had a warm heart and was a loyal friend and will be deeply missed by all. We are so proud of Tracy for standing up in court on the two trials.”
Greater Manchester’s Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd said anyone who came forward to make serious allegations should be treated with dignity throughout the investigative and courtroom process including after a jury has reached its verdict.
“What is abundantly clear is that victims and witnesses are not where they should be – at the heart of the criminal justice system,” he said. “This can’t go on – a root and branch review of how victims and witnesses are treated is urgently needed,” he added.
Ms Shelvey’s death follows that of Frances Andrade who took her own life after testifying against her old music teacher Michael Brewer. He was later found guilty of indecently assaulting her when she was a pupil.
Detectives from Greater Manchester Police went to Ms Shelvey’s home on Friday to tell her about the verdicts. She was visited again with paramedics later that night after contacting the force in a distressed state and offered advice and reassured. The matter has now been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The charity Victim Support said it had supported Ms Shelvey through its witness service programme. It said it was currently assessing the level of help it gave.
As a complainant in a rape case she would have been offered the opportunity to give evidence by videolink or behind a screen. However there is no mechanism for the original evidence to be presented in a second trial as this would breach the defence’s right to cross examine the complainant.
After the trial she would have been referred to specialist agencies for further support.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said more could be done to help witnesses giving evidence. “That is why we are trialling an important new way of sparing vulnerable witnesses the trauma of appearing in court through pre-trial cross examination. We have also overhauled the Victims' Code so people know what to expect and who to demand help from every step of the way,” she said.