CPS 'shrugs off sex attacks on the vulnerable'

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The Independent Online
Nobody doubts Elaine's claim that she was sexually assaulted; it's just that the Crown Prosecution Service did not think it worth bringing to court the man who she says ruined her life.

There is still a terror in her eyes as she recalls the events which began three years ago. For Elaine, a vulnerable 45-year-old with a mental age of eight, says that her neighbour repeatedly raped her for nearly a year.

Her neighbour admitted to the police that he had buggered her, but said Elaine consented. The CPS dropped the case, despite buggery being a criminal offence even when consensual.

Since the assaults Elaine has felt suicidal, has had nightmares, and still receives counselling. For, having had the courage to tell the police, she, like other adults with learning difficulties who have been abused, never saw her attacker brought to trial.

Charities say that the legal system is failing such adults. A police officer said: "This is like child abuse 15 years ago. There is a lot of it going on and we only know about the tip of the iceberg." Fred Heddell, chief executive of the charity Mencap, thinks the estimated one million adults in Britain with learning disabilities are the group now most at risk risk of sexual abuse, with their attackers having the best chance of being left at large.

He said: "The CPS is sitting on its hands and doing nothing. They need to treat adults with learning disabilities with humanity and dignity. They describe them as unreliable witnesses. We have evidence that, like children, vulnerable adults do not lie about being sexually abused. If people are not prosecuted and have no criminal record, they can get another job working with adults with learning disabilities and commit further abuse."

Other charities, police, lawyers and academics agree, and accuse the CPS of refusing to prosecute because it wrongly believes victims could not face up to cross-examination in the witness box.

Elaine said: "I would have gone to court. I would have seen it through. He should have gone to prison for what he did."

Professor Hilary Brown, Britain's leading expert on the subject, estimates that, of a minimum 1,500 such cases last year, only a fraction led to convictions.

Charities and campaigners also say that judges lack understanding and pass lenient sentences in the rare cases when abusers are brought to trial. Care worker Leslie Mack walked free after admitting intercourse and indecent assault on a 25-year-old woman with Down's syndrome. Judge Watling QC gave him three years' probation saying: "You really were as much a victim in a way as she was."

The victim's distraught father begged the CPS to appeal against the lenient sentence but was refused. The father, a management consultant from Surrey, said: "My daughter was treated like a second-class citizen."

Edwina Currie MP, joint chairwoman of an all-party group which is pressing for tougher action, said: "This is criminal behaviour on the part of the bench. Judges like that should be sacked on the spot." However, she puts most blame on the CPS, and next month the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barbara Mills QC, will meet the all-party group.

Mrs Currie said: "There needs to be a public outcry about the lack of prosecutions of sexual abusers who attack adults with learning disabilities. These cases are tragic and horrifying. The police are much better than they used to be, the CPS is not."

Charities want courts to be made less intimidating for adults who have the mental age of children. As in cases of child sex abuse, they want victims to be able to give video evidence, barristers to remove their wigs, and the victims to be allowed to use interpreters.

They also want the right to check the police records of potential care workers in residential homes, to weed out abusers.

A spokesman for the CPS refused to discuss individual cases, but said: "All cases submitted to the service, including those involving mentally vulnerable witnesses, are considered individually and in accordance with the tests set out for Crown Prosecutors.

"No assumptions are made that victims who are mentally vulnerable will be unreliable witnesses.

"Prosecutors are encouraged to use all available procedures to assist such witnesses in giving their evidence."