By English Collective of Prostitutes and Legal Action for Women
The exclusion zone imposed on a suspected rapist of prostitute women in Birmingham is a striking example of the summary justice promoted by Tony Blair.[i] The police justify it by saying they don’t have enough evidence to prosecute, even though he has been identified by four women. This excuse is no longer believable, and is not believed by local councillors and residents who have expressed concern: 1) that the women’s evidence is being disregarded because they are sex workers; and 2) that public exposure may push the alleged attacker to move on to another area where he will be free to strike again.
In fact, publicly exposing a suspected rapist may end up protecting him from prosecution and sabotaging any possibility of a criminal conviction, as his defence could argue that he could not get a fair trial. As a result, this man and other violent men may be left at liberty to attack again.
We have seen over and over, how rapists and other violent men have become serial attackers and even murderers because the police did not bother to gather crucial evidence when the men were first reported – often by partners who accused them of domestic violence. To police reluctance to prioritise rape and domestic violence, we must add the sexism of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) which routinely dismisses cases of violence against women, especially if they consider the victims “unreliable witnesses” because, for example, they are sex workers.
In 1995 we challenged CPS assumptions by bringing a private prosecution[ii] against a man who had raped at least two sex workers at knife point. The man was convicted and sentenced to 14 years (reduced to 11 on appeal) on the same evidence the CPS had dismissed as “insufficient”. The case showed that if the evidence is gathered thoroughly and presented in a non-discriminatory way, juries will decide that sex workers are as entitled to protection and justice as anyone else.
But despite this precedent, the police and CPS have continued to let their sexism and other prejudices determine priorities for arrest and prosecution of those who attack women and children. As a result, the conviction for rape is down to 5.8% and women and girls continue to be the victims of rape and murder at the hands of those who have been let off for similar previous crimes. Racist crimes, which are also affected by police and CPS prejudice, also have a low prosecution and conviction rate, comparable to rape and domestic violence. Where does that leave racist sexual assault against women and girls of colour?
The Yorkshire Ripper scandal of the 1970-80s has been followed by Fred and Rosemary West, Ian Huntley, Anthony Hardy, David Atkinson and others, all of whom had been reported for violence many times before they were finally convicted.[iii]
Women Against Rape (WAR) has been raising this for years. In March 2004 WAR wrote to the Bichard Inquiry into the Soham murders asking the Inquiry to examine why Huntley was not previously convicted despite being reported nine times for rape and sexual assault. WAR’s request was endorsed by 36 organisations, including ours, and prominent lawyers. More recently WAR supported the call by Jackie Valad, the mother of one of Hardy’s victims, for a public inquiry to examine the lack of prosecutions for his previously reported violence. These requests have been dismissed.
Instead, justice is being replaced by extra-judicial powers – a parallel criminal system based not on women’s evidence but on prejudice, hearsay and the rule of the executive over the courts. Exclusion zones imposed without a trial – through Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and anti-terrorism legislation – are now extended to other crimes.
Tony Blair has said: “We asked the police what powers they wanted and gave them to them …” But we must stress that it is not lack of police powers that stand in the way of justice for women, but the sexism, racism and other prejudices which determine the low priority accorded to crimes of violence against women, children, people of colour and others who are the target of prejudice. While attacks on women and children continue to rise, the imprisonment of women and children accused of breaching ASBOs is escalating – far from increasing protection, vulnerable women, starting with prostitute women, and children are increasingly locked up and separated from their families and peers.
Anti-trafficking powers are another example where rape and other violence against women is being used to attack women. The police are raiding massage parlours, claiming to “free” women from traffickers while locking them up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and deporting them. This has provided a cover to target premises where there is no suggestion of trafficked victims being held. 55 flats in Central London were recently raided and 70 women questioned without legal representation. Some were forced to sign cautions (an admission of guilt resulting in a criminal record). Were it not for the diversion and disinformation so-called trafficking provides, the police could not justify targeting women working independently and more safely in this way.[iv]
We will not allow the pain and suffering victims go through to be used to bring in indiscriminate police powers which hide the police and CPS neglect of victims’ right to justice. If we were able to bring a prosecution successfully, why wasn’t the CPS? Neither the CPS nor anyone in the criminal justice system has wanted to answer this crucial question. Successive inquiries into the Soham and the Camden murders have refused to address why neither Ian Huntley nor Anthony Hardy was convicted for previous crimes.
WAR has also asked for women’s sexual history not to be raised in court. This history aimed at discrediting the victim’s character allows rapist after rapist to walk free. While claiming they were introducing legislation that would protect the victim, the government has insisted on keeping legal exemptions which enable the rapist to trash his victim’s character.
While it promotes witch-hunts, the much-heralded sex offenders register has not protected children. Cases of widespread abuse over years, especially in institutions, continue to collapse.
We want police time and resources to prioritise crimes of violence against women and children, we do not want indiscriminate police powers. We want the CPS to do its job, not to find excuses not to prosecute. We want legislation to be used to protect the vulnerable, not to criminalise women and children. We want jury trials and convictions, not witch-hunts. We want justice not summary justice.
Crossroads Women’s Centre, 230A Kentish Town Road, London NW5 2AB
[i] “We asked the police what powers they wanted and gave them to them. . . . Summary justice through on-the-spot fines, seizure of drug dealers’ assets, closure of pubs, clubs and houses that are the centre of drug use or disorder, naming and shaming of persistent ASB offenders, interim ASBO’s, will be rolled out. Organised criminals will face not just the pre-emptive seizure of their assets, but will be forced to co-operate with investigations and will face trial without jury where there is any suggestion of intimidation of jurors. Abuse of court procedures, endless trial delays, the misuse of legal aid will no longer be tolerated. The purpose of the CJS reforms is to re-balance the system radically in favour of the victim, protecting the innocent but ensuring the guilty know the odds have changed.” Tony Blair, 19 July 2005
[ii] Legal Action for Women, working with the English Collective of Prostitutes and Women Against Rape, co-ordinated the private prosecution brought by two sex workers attacked by the same man in similar circumstances. For an account see Some Mother’s Daughter – the hidden movement of prostitute women against violence by the International Prostitutes Collective, and visit www.allwomencount.net
[iii] Dr Shipman, the biggest mass murderer we know of, benefited from widespread bias in favour of those in caring professions against mainly elderly women patients. Thus he was allowed to continue and not reported to the police despite irregularities and suspicion by the families of some of his victims as well as some of his colleagues. Hundreds died as a result.
[iv] On 6 October 55 flats in Baker Street and the surrounding area were raided by police and immigration officials and over 70 women questioned for up to five hours.