Behind the headlines: Seeking the truth behind sex grooming cases
Sexual grooming has come to public attention since a series of high profile cases were widely reported by the media. Cases such as Operation Bullfinch (where seven men of Pakistani and east Africa origin were jailed for abusing six girls in Oxford) received a great deal of press coverage.
Research on public perceptions of sexual offending frequently shows contradictory attitudes towards sexual grooming (McCarten, 2004; Levenson, Brannon, & Baker, 2007; Olver & Barlow, 2010.) The research has showed that the public tends to hold inaccurate, stereotyped and skewed perceptions about sex offenders, similar in fact to those depicted in the media. Studies show that while the public accept that the chance of being sexually abused by a stranger is slight, they are still reluctant to conceptualise the risk of sexual victimisation by family members and in the home.
In sexual grooming cases the jury tends to have a clearly emotive public reaction to sex offending, which might distract them from the complexities of grooming behaviour.
What is common to all sexual offence cases is their complexity, raising many issues for both the prosecution and defence when it comes to the cogency of legal arguments and evidence. As Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, observed, “a very small minority of people in the Asian community have a very unhealthy view of women… It’s a complex jigsaw, and ethnicity is just one of the pieces. Class is a major factor, night-time economy is a factor, in terms of this type of on-street grooming, not sexual abuse per se.”
The defence must take steps from the outset to challenge any misconceptions, and help the jury to recognise the different types of grooming behaviour and the issues of a specific case. By the conclusion of the case the jury should be able to distinguish your client from the group of men with whom he is being tried.
Individuals are increasingly being targeted by those under pressure to prosecute sexual offences, so robust and well thought-out representation at all stages, from initial police investigation and interview, ensures the rights of those accused are protected.
When defending allegations of indecent assault or other sexual offences, the importance of defence statements and the quality of third party evidence and medical evidence cannot be overstated. This should involve forensic investigations into the credibility and reliability of witnesses and the accuracy of the evidence. There are many situations where a case may be terminated early or a defendant discharged because of the force of a properly drafted defence statement.
Defence statements can demonstrate that allegations may be false or exaggerated, either due to malice or false memory. It can provide medical evidence that assists the defendant, such as illnesses that affect sexual performance. Defence statements can also highlight instances where there is insufficient evidence to identify the suspect or to reveal the alleged motive. By raising such issues, defence statements seek to identify points overlooked by the police and prosecution, which show that the case is unfounded and unlikely to result in conviction.
Disclosure requests may reveal material held by third parties, such as social services, which may shed a different light on the relationship between the complainant and the defendant.
Although medical statements, forensic examinations, independent witness statements and other forms of evidence are often relevant to a sexual offence case, the prosecution’s principal form of evidence is likely to be a witness statement made by the complainant. Such evidence is often fundamental to the case against a defendant and demands special attention.
Confabulation is a risk in cases where ‘case building’ relies heavily on a progressive narrative by complainants, and where there is a presumption of victimhood. The term ‘vulnerable’, when applied to witnesses who have a history of difficult and wayward behaviour, does not only mean they are open to sexual exploitation but can also illustrate they are open to suggestion by their saviours – the police, social workers and allied multi-agency services.
Where a case depends substantially on oral testimony, the only way a jury can be sure of guilt is by examining the cogency and consistency of testimony. There will, of course, be cases where the defendant’s evidence is poor, and that can support the prosecution. But other cases may involve the defendant giving a flat denial, with nothing other than the complainant’s evidence to rely on. And in that instance, if a complainant’s evidence is seriously inconsistent, then the only fair and rational verdict is to acquit.