Daily Telegraph, 1 July 2015
Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is facing calls to resign in the wake of her U-turn over whether to prosecute Lord Janner for child sex offences. Joan Smith explains why this brave woman should stay in her job
A witch-hunt is under way. The target is the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, who should resign, we are told, because she took the ‘wrong’ decision in the case of Lord Janner. On Monday, after a review by an independent lawyer, Saunders reversed her decision that the peer, who suffers from dementia, should not be prosecuted on ‘historic’ charges of rape and sexual assault.
‘Sack her!’ came the cry, as though Saunders had been caught out in a misguided personal campaign to let sexual predators off the hook. The fact that a great deal of legal opinion is on the DPP’s side seems not to count at all in such circumstances. Nor does the fact that Saunders has done her best to rebalance the rights of victims and perpetrators in cases of rape and sexual assault, to a point where she has been accused of showing too much sympathy for victims.
I can understand how upset Janner’s alleged victims were by Saunders’s original decision. I’m not a lawyer but the decision seemed to me finely balanced, pitting the right of victims to have their allegations aired in court against a medical diagnosis that says their alleged abuser does not have the capacity to defend himself. What is clear is that the peer’s behaviour should have been investigated more thoroughly years ago.
Saunders believes he could have been prosecuted on at least two occasions. It is those missed opportunities that should be under scrutiny now, not her rather brave decision to submit herself to a review process set up by her predecessor, Kier Starmer. Janner was still a Labour MP when the allegations first surfaced, and it should not be forgotten that he received robust cross-party support when he stood up to deny them in the House of Commons in 1991.
Equally striking is the fact that the grounds for demanding Saunders’s resignation this week represent a 180-degree turn on the previous (and equally strident) accusations against her. Five months ago, when the Crown Prosecution Service issued new guidelines on consent in rape cases, the reaction was almost as hysterical; Saunders was accused of being too sympathetic to victims in a slew of articles that conjured up the old stereotype of women who supposedly ‘cry rape’. She was called ‘politically correct’ and accused of being part of the ‘all-men-are-rapists brigade’. Her offence? The apparently outrageous assertion that men need to be able to prove that a woman had consented to sex with them.
Of course it is nothing of the sort. Everyone – women, men, police officers and lawyers making decisions about whether or not to prosecute – needs to be clear about the legal definition of consent. The guidelines spelled this out and tackled a series of rape ‘myths’ which have no basis in fact but discourage victims from reporting serious assaults. Those myths range from the unproven assertion that women accuse men of rape just because they changed their minds afterwards to the notion that silence can be taken for consent.
This was another brave move on Saunders’s part and it was met by shameless recycling of the very myths she sought to dispel. Her concern is the huge number of rapes – four out of five, according to senior police officers I have talked to – which don’t get reported because victims fear they won’t be believed. The number of reported rapes soared by 68 per cent from 2005/6 to 2013/14, but there was only a 17 per cent increase in charges in that period.
Saunders’ first move as DPP was to announce a campaign to target violence against women and secure more rape convictions. She’s lobbied judges to warn juries about rape myths and backed improved victim support (particularly in stalking cases) so that women know what to expect in court. Almost 100,000 criminal cases were launched against abusive partners last year – taking into account new definitions of abuse, such as revenge porn and coercive control – with a record 68,601 successful convictions.
In the 18 months she has been DPP, it has become clear that Saunders is not afraid of taking unpopular decisions or challenging powerful interests. She’s made a lot of enemies, in other words, not least among journalists angry about the way she defended the decision to prosecute tabloid reporters in the wake of Operation Elveden. It’s also clear that she’s shaking up the criminal justice system in ways her critics find uncomfortable.
Sometimes that means challenging ill-founded assumptions which stop victims of sexual violence getting justice. Sometimes it means taking into account whether a sick man is able to mount a proper defence, and getting that decision reviewed when it is challenged.
I’m sure Saunders didn’t set out to be popular but I’m disgusted by these attacks on her integrity – and her courage.