Editorial: Case shows failings

Monday, 03 November 2014 19
The widespread outrage over the Roast Busters under-age sex scandal has now given way to astonishment and annoyance that the alleged offenders will not be prosecuted.

The widespread outrage over the Roast Busters under-age sex scandal has now given way to astonishment and annoyance that the alleged offenders will not be prosecuted. To the criticism of the police response can be added valid questions about the justice system. That combination makes this the sort of landmark case which both demands and warrants change. An acceptance that this is simply the way it is, is inconceivable. In the interests of the traumatised young complainants in particular, the failings highlighted by this case must, as far as possible, be remedied.

Ways need to be found, especially, to make it easier for victims to make complaints and give evidence for a successful prosecution. There is one obvious port of call. That is the 2012 Law Commission consultation paper which canvassed the introduction of a European-style inquisitorial system for the victims of sex crimes. This would see judges actively inquiring into the facts with the aim of establishing the truth. Victims would be protected far more from the pressure and stress of appearing in the courtroom.

The commission said many victims found the current adversarial system alienating and disempowering. Indeed, the prospect of aggressive questioning during trials was thought to have constrained even the reporting of sex offences. This explains partly why there are only a very small number of successful convictions in sexual assault cases. The commission’s work was requested by Simon Power when he was the justice minister. But his successor, Judith Collins, showed far less enthusiasm for the inquisitorial approach and quickly shelved it. The Roast Busters case dictates that a fresh look should be a high priority for the new Justice Minister, Amy Adams.

Several particulars of the scandal resonate. The police said one of the factors that led them not to prosecute was the victims’ wishes. The complainants in the Roast Busters case were as young as 13. Naturally, they would have felt embarrassed and emotionally fragile, not least about the possibility of public humiliation in a courtroom. A less adversarial system would give such young women far more confidence about giving evidence. It would also encourage the police to believe there was a far greater prospect of a successful prosecution.

The head of the police investigation, Detective Inspector Karyn Malthus, said the main reason for not laying charges was the lack of a reasonable prospect of conviction, as laid out in the Solicitor-General’s guidelines. In the absence of that, “we are not in the business of putting these young people into a court process”, she said. This explanation pointed to the difficulties of gathering evidence sufficient to prove complaints of rape.

In the Roast Busters case, of course, that issue was magnified by flaws in the police investigation. These encompassed not only operational efficiency but questions about attitudes to this type of crime. Disturbingly, the girls’ claims may not have been treated as seriously as they should have been. Any shortcomings in this attitude are, obviously, completely untenable. It seems incomprehensible that the police would not treat a formal complaint from a 13-year-old girl with the utmost seriousness and sincerity.

Ms Collins maintained that a more inquisitorial system provided no guarantee of better justice for victims. But, increasingly, elements of it are being used in this country. Aggressive contests between defence and prosecution lawyers do not always serve the interests of justice best. Most pertinently, the inquisitorial approach guarantees an increased focus on the needs of the victim. That makes it superior for cases of sexual offending.

It also makes it one good thing that should emerge from the Roast Busters scandal.

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