Sexual crimes are taken seriously by the police and criminal justice system, particularly if there is a suggestion of repeat offences, future offences, or an abuse of power. Offenders can be charged and taken to court at any point in time after the offence was committed, as long as the Crown Prosecution Service are satisfied that there is reasonable prospect of a conviction, and it is in the interests of justice for the case to go ahead. Even if it takes decades for the necessary evidence to come to light, prosecution will still go forward if the case is serious and there is evidence of an offence being committed. This evidence can sometimes just be on the word or statement of the person claiming to be the victim. In this post we’ll take a look at the process leading up to prosecution.
Can police charge you without evidence?
As with any crime, a person cannot be charged with a sexual crime unless there is enough evidence to suggest a reasonable chance of conviction. You cannot be charged by police if there is no evidence of an offence being committed. In the case of sexual crimes, evidence is likely to be a combination of forensic evidence, including DNA samples and evidence from the crime scene, and witness statements. However, where the allegation may date back years, the type of evidence that the Police or Crown Prosecution Service may rely on can be very different and will rarely involve the gathering of DNA samples or forensic based evidence.
Historic cases are often more complex and raise many more questions as it can become harder to pin down the nature of a crime the more time passes. There is absolutely no time period after which it is impossible to charge someone with a historic allegation of sexual assault or rape. Even if the law has changed since the crime was committed, a defendant can be charged according to the previous law. This is particularly so when the alleged offence dates back to before 2003—offences prior to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 were governed in the main by the Sexual Offences Act of 1956.
Due to the sensitive and distressing nature of sexual crimes, it is not uncommon for alleged victims to have had concerns about coming forward in the past. This is often the case as there may have been a perception that they would not be believed. This was shown in recent high-profile cases involving celebrities charged with sexual abuse. It does not matter if it takes decades for witnesses to come forwards, if their statements provide sufficient grounds to charge someone, that person will be charged. However, sometimes the reasons for why the complaint is being made many years after the alleged sexual assault or abuse needs to be looked at with a little more care and with greater scrutiny, these are often complex cases that need to be thoroughly examined from an accused or defendant’s perspective.
What is a statement to the police?
When a crime is reported to police, they will ask for a statement to be made by the alleged victim. This statement may be written down or it may involve the police videoing what the person is saying so that the account and complaint is clearly recorded. When the Police are taking the statement this is a basic account of the alleged crime by the witness: what happened, when it happened, where it happened, and whether or not the witness knows who did it. Of course, sometimes the witness is not necessarily a victim of the crime. They are simply someone who believes that a crime has been committed or can provide information in support or relevance to the investigation.
The decision as to whether a witness’ statement is recorded by police in writing or by video is where the police may consider the witness as a vulnerable person or intimidated victim,. In either case, police ask questions to ensure all relevant details are recorded in the statement. Once a statement has been recorded, it is up to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to decide whether or not prosecution for the crime should go ahead.
If a reported offence moves ahead to a prosecution, all the witness’ statements that led to that decision will go forward as part of the evidence, which is likely to be heard in court and the Defence are entitled to disclosure of all of those statements at that stage. Witnesses may be required to make additional appearances in court, once the trial has started.
How does the CPS decide whether to prosecute?
As prosecuting someone has serious effects on that person’s life, there are strict rules in place to guide the process. The CPS has two main concerns when deciding whether to prosecute:
- is there enough evidence against the defendant to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction?
- does the public interest require or justify a prosecution?
The evidence part is clear: if there is not enough evidence to suggest that a jury is more likely than not to find a defendant guilty, then the CPS will not let the case go to prosecution. Public interest can vary more from case to case, and has particular relevance to sexual crimes.
Defining public interest
In determining the public interest of a crime, the CPS considers numerous factors. These include the views expressed by the victim: in the case of sexual crimes, if the victim feels that the offender is likely to offend again, or has caused particular trauma, this would be a reason to go forward with a prosecution. If the offence is severe, affects multiple people, represents a long-standing abuse of power, or involves children, these would all be reasons to make the CPS more likely to prosecute.
If you are being investigated or accused of a sexual crime or offence, it is crucial you seek confidential, expert advice about how to proceed as soon as possible. We have an established history of defending all types of sexual offences, especially complex, historic and serious ones. For more information about how sexual charges can develop, discussed in complete confidence, please call 0333 202 0972 or make an enquiry.