It was reported recently that a judge had given a man a suspended sentence after admitting engaging in sexual activity with a 13-year-old girl.
Perhaps unwisely, prosecuting counsel referred to her as “predatory”, and also to the fact that she was sexually experienced. Howls of outrage greeted the reports of his words, and the CPS has told the world that it has suspended use of his services in this field pending an investigation.
But hang on a minute. Supposing what the QC said, albeit using a colourful metaphor, was essentially true? What if this man had a low IQ? What if the girl’s family was horribly dysfunctional, and she chose his company? Some teenage girls are very assertive, and look older than their age. Some swear, drink, smoke and do drugs.
It has been Department of Health policy since the 1980s that underage teenagers choosing to be sexually active should receive contraceptive advice and treatment, in confidence. Sexual health charities working with young people have been telling policy makers, for years, that the existing age of consent law does not deter those underage teenagers who are sexually active. And the UK’s teen pregnancy rate is one of the highest in Western Europe. Yet if one of these “Gillick-competent” teens is involved in a criminal case, these uncomfortable facts are conveniently forgotten.
There is now such hysteria about sex crime that a grown-up debate about the difficult issues raised by recent court cases is well nigh impossible. The victim lobby, represented by various advocacy and campaigning groups, some with vast PR budgets, aggressively challenges any point of view, which does not accord with its own. This has damaging consequences for liberty and the rule of law.
For a start, any judge who tries to look at cases on their merits is automatically assumed to be wrong, if his sentence does not accord with the views of these groups, whose approach to sexual offending is relentlessly punitive. But since when did we have sentencing by media?
Second, we are expected to adhere to a stereotypical view of sex offenders as uniquely wicked, and less than human – “predators”, in fact. This is a metaphor from trashy crime novels. It is seriously stigmatizing, implying that no fate can be too bad for this group of offenders.
Now, some sexual offences are deeply shocking, and leave their victims profoundly traumatised. But it is erroneous to assume that this is so, in all cases: a great many are not even reported.
Yet one regularly hears of the assumption that sexual offences scar people for life. A recent study on sentencing records some relatives saying that they wish the victim were dead, instead. That is absurd.
Is it helpful to victims to see them as damaged for life? I think this is counter-productive. Victims deserve sympathy and understanding, but they do not need to be treated as doomed, or as fragile and weak. If they are adults, they should be treated as adults, not as children.
A criminal trial is adversarial: it is not “therapy.” If you accuse a person of a criminal offence, which could result in his imprisonment, you should expect to come to court and be questioned about your account, in public. Justice must be seen to be done. The defence is entitled to put his case. It is not “offensive” to plead Not Guilty.
Crime rates are falling, and our present preoccupation with historic sex abuse distracts attention from this. Such historic cases are, as the cultural historian Richard Webster and some defence lawyers have said in the last 15 years, almost impossible to defend. That is because multiple allegations are pursued in the one trial, each being taken as “corroboration” of the rest. It is a lazy way to prosecute: “if you throw enough mud, some is bound to stick”.
An innocent person, whose only defence is his word – “I didn’t do it” – is very likely not going to be believed in that scenario, and so effectively the presumption of innocence is replaced by a presumption of guilt. This is a shameful state of affairs for a country whose legal system has long been the admiration of other countries.