Alison Saunders: Helping stalking victims to prepare is not about rehearsing evidence

Director of Public Prosecutions welcomes new harassment guidance

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The Independent Online

Of all the crimes that I have ultimate responsibility for prosecuting, those of stalking and harassment must be among the most unpleasant and the most cowardly.

Stalking threatens people in their own home; when they’re at work; when they’re out socialising; or even when they’re walking down the street. It may not leave physical scars – but it is psychologically traumatic.

Today’s announcement that more people are being prosecuted for stalking and harassment offences is really encouraging news. Last year more than 10,000 people were brought to account for their actions – 20 per cent more than a year before and a sign that the criminal justice system is working.

But it is easy to forget that behind each of these statistics is a victim, who had to go to court and relive a harrowing experience they would rather forget.

So while it is right that figures such as today’s are welcomed, I think we must do more to support the individuals behind them.

A victim of a sexual assault recently told me she could have been spared a year’s worth of worry about giving evidence if someone had just told her more about what to expect in court.

I think she is entirely right and that we can and must do more for all the victims of serious crimes in this regard.

A major change I think we can make is to do more to tell victims about what they can expect from the process. Even for some professionals, appearing in a court in front of a judge, a jury and a packed court room can be intimidating. How much worse must it be for a victim who has no experience of the process who has to relive a deeply traumatic experience in public and face legitimate, but hostile, questioning by the defence?

For example, a victim of stalking or harassment may arrive to give evidence, understandably nervous, only to find out that, according to the defendant, they are the one who was the aggressor or a fantasist.

Should this tactic not be something that the victim is made aware of so that they can prepare mentally for the difficult questions that such a claim may prompt?

It may come as a surprise to some that this is not how we operate already, but our long-standing practice has been to leave victims to work it out for themselves. That seems to me to be not only cold and dispassionate, but unfair.

Today we are launching a join protocol between the CPS and the Association of Chief Police Officers that will ensure that victims of these crimes are given the help they need by police and prosecutors throughout what can be an incredibly trying time.

Telling victims more about what they can expect is not about rehearsing evidence – we know the difference between informing and coaching.  We have come a long way since the days of prosecutors refusing to even speak with victims for fear of allegations of trying to influence their evidence, and a fair trial for a defendant can be guaranteed without this overly conservative approach towards victims. I do not want to change the principles of justice but I do want to shift current practice.

Alison Saunders is Director of Public Prosecutions