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11 Apr 2014

Corker Binning Partner comments in The Financial Times re prosecuting historical sex cases

Partner Robert Brown comments in the Financial Times about the acquittal of Nigel Evans and his views on prosecuting historical sex cases.

Celebrity sex case acquittals raise questions for CPS

By Jane Croft and Caroline Binham

Acquittals of famous figures on sex charges, culminating in the clearing of former House of Commons deputy Speaker Nigel Evans, have raised questions about why the Crown Prosecution Service pursued the cases.

Mr Evans stood outside Preston crown court this week and spoke of the “11 months of hell” he endured before he was cleared of nine offences against young men.

Other high-profile figures recently acquitted of sex charges include Coronation Street actors William Roache and Michael Le Vell and former disc jockey Dave Lee Travis.

David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, said the Evans case raised “serious concerns” about how the police and CPS operated.

The former Speaker’s trial heard that three of his alleged seven victims did not even consider an offence had been committed against them.

Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, on Friday defended the decision to take on the Nigel Evans case saying the CPS was not “on a mission” to pursue famous people and insisting it would not “shy away” from difficult cases.

The CPS’s conviction record is high – for lesser sex offences it stood at 77 per cent in 2012-13 and for rape cases, 63 per cent were convicted.

Legal experts say more high-profile sex offence cases have come to court in the past year, partly a result of the public outcry against late television star Jimmy Savile who allegedly committed hundreds of sex offences but never faced justice before he died in 2011.

Lawyers say securing convictions for any sex cases, let alone historical ones dating back decades, can be difficult because often there is a lack of forensic evidence and witnesses. Cases often come down to one person’s word against another.

Defence barristers can easily pick apart the testimony of victims who may not recollect exact details of events which happened years ago.

Sir Edward Garnier QC, the former solicitor general said: “It’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ problem for the CPS: if it didn’t prosecute when there’s sufficient evidence then there would be criticism that it is letting down victims.

“It’s not that the CPS has sought out high-profile defendants, but [post-Savile] more people have gone to the police claiming that they were attacked.”

Robert Brown, a lawyer at Corker Binning who acted for economist Vicky Pryce in her trial on charges of perverting the course of justice last year, said juries can be particularly unpredictable with historic allegations.

“If a case is very old and it’s very serious, such as a child murder, a jury is less likely to acquit,” he said. “If it’s old and relatively trivial then they are less likely to convict particularly if the defendant is of good character.”

Prosecuting famous defendants is also more difficult.

Lord MacDonald, the former director of public prosecutions, said: “If the defendant is high-profile, in this context, it brings added complexity. It becomes a factor.”

The test applied to the CPS to bring a case to court is different to that which a jury must apply for conviction.

Lawyers say the CPS must only satisfy itself that there is a reasonable chance of conviction if it brings a case and that it is in the public interest. Evidence can often be only fully tested in a trial.

But a jury can only convict if is convinced of a defendant’s guilt beyond all reasonable doubt – the burden of proof is on the prosecution.

“There shouldn’t be an approach which says that all acquittals are cases which should not be brought by the CPS,” said one lawyer who has some sympathy for the prosecution service.