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Shadow attorney general demands ‘re-think’ over rape cases

Emily Thornberry writes to DPP after Exaro revealed change to prosecution rules

By Alex Varley-Winter | 1 October 2012

“The whole drive towards specially trained barristers for rape cases risks losing momentum and going into reverse” – Vera Baird, former solicitor general

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry demanded an “urgent re-think” about the decision to relax official guidelines on using specially trained barristers to prosecute rape cases.

The MP wrote to Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions (DPP), and Dominic Grieve, attorney general, after Exaro revealed that official guidelines about the use of specialist barristers had been weakened.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) relaxed its rules at the end of August that require a barrister with specialist sex-crime training to attend every stage of a rape case. But the change angered campaigners for rape victims.

The revised CPS guidance says that non-rape specialist advocates may attend hearings. It mentions defence applications for bail and other interlocutory hearings, but is unclear whether it includes trials.

After reading Exaro’s report, Thornberry said that she immediately wrote to Starmer and Grieve to demand an “urgent rethink” of the CPS amendment.

In her letter to Starmer, she wrote: “Rape campaigners have denounced this as backsliding. The trial process can be notoriously traumatic for rape victims.

“Historically, courts have not always been sympathetic arenas for rape victims and this put many of them off from coming forward in the first place. This is why it is so important that rape victims can count on the fact that those handling their cases are highly experienced and sensitive to their needs.”

She wrote to Grieve to ask him to ensure that cuts to the CPS’s budget do not impact on the victims of sexual violence.

Thornberry told Exaro: “Whether the CPS intended to change the rule in that way – I suspect that it did not – but that does seem to be what the rules now say.”

“It seems to me to not be clear at all,” she said. “If the Crown Prosecution Service does not intend for any cases to be conducted by anyone other than a rape specialist, then they should spell that out.”

Thornberry said that the last Labour government saw it as a priority to ensure that rape cases were only prosecuted by specialist barristers. “My concern is that that might be undermined.”

The CPS issued guidelines four years ago on using specialist prosecutors in cases of rape and domestic violence. The weakening of the guidelines in August is aimed at speeding up the court process for rape cases.

Thornberry continued: “Your article referred to the amount of time that it took from charge to trial in rape cases. Clearly that is a concern to everybody. I read with interest that many advocates were saying that the change to the rules might speed matters up.”

“But there is another way of looking at it, which is that if there are not enough rape specialists out there to be able to cover the interlocutory hearings and the trials in a speedy way, then we should be training more specialists.”

Vera Baird, solicitor general in the last Labour government, described the CPS amendment as “shocking”.

She said: “The fact that it is now a ‘should’ rule and not a ‘must’ rule will mean that, in practice, barristers’ clerks are likely to conclude that there is not really a rule at all.

“The whole drive towards specially trained barristers for rape cases risks losing momentum and going into reverse. This is really shocking news, especially when you consider the extent to which the CPS has invested in this.”

Thornberry and Baird fear that the change is in danger of affecting trials.

But the CPS says that this was not the intention, and that it was only meant to apply to preliminary hearings. A CPS spokeswoman told Exaro that the DPP has offered to clear up the ambiguity in the new rules.

The CPS spokeswoman said: “There is no question that rape trials can only be prosecuted by specialist advocates. Since the policy was first published that has always been, and remains, the case.”

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Exaro News investigates matters of public interest and seeks to uncover the truth.