Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Unanswered Questions in the Rape Retraction Saga

The criminal justice professionals who contributed to the saga of “Sarah”, as the Guardian named her in Saturday’s interview, the Powys women imprisoned for retracting her rape complaint against her husband, have serious questions to answer.

It is a catastrophic case not only for the already victimised woman who has been criminalised, imprisoned and, for the time being, robbed of her children, and for the public, since a man the authorities were satisfied had raped her and believed had perverted the course of justice, is free. It will also terrify the many other rape complainants, who are abused by partners or ex-partners, and often, as in this case, during a long course of domestic violence. These women already have to struggle for support to get out of their situation and will now worry  that asking for help may be more dangerous than staying to suffer. Complaints may start to fall again, reversing years of work which have been done, ironically, by the very criminal justice agencies, whose bad apples caused this tragedy.

Police and CPS could refer the case to their own complaints divisions in the public interest, and the Lord Chief Justice should consider more training both for the Judge who granted bail and for the one who sentenced her to prison. However, a joint inquiry into how this debacle occurred and how to ensure no future repetition would be the best way forward.
The questions are simple.

First, why did any judge grant bail to a man charged with six counts of raping his wife?  
Police and CPS agreed that there was evidence to charge “Ray” her husband, who was remanded in custody but 3 weeks  later he was freed on bail by a judge, a decision that gave him the opportunity to pressure Sarah into withdrawing her case.

One reason to refuse bail is the seriousness of the charge of rape. Another is that the defendant is likely to interfere with witnesses. There could hardly be a case in which that risk was likelier. Sarah says that Ray had violently and sexually abused her for nine years. She was so within his control that she was not allowed to keep her own purse or her driving licence or banker’s card. When she told him she was calling the police he told their child that Sarah was having him taken away. In 3 weeks on remand, he wrote 4 times to his children telling them that prison was horrible. He thus showed every sign of pressuring her to drop the case and, since he had controlled her for nine years, had every chance of succeeding. To bail him on condition that he should not contact her was asking for trouble. It reflects the low recognition amongst senior judiciary that domestic violence is a power and control process which does not end, but usually gets worse, when the victim takes action to escape.

The second question is why did the police not investigate and charge Ray when he broke bail and perverted the course of justice, at least twice, by contacting Sarah and telling her to withdraw her complaint?
The CID officer to whom Sarah first tried to withdraw said “From the moment he got bail, he got to you”. Ray had indeed “got to her” As soon as he was free, he had called her, texted her, asked her to take their children to see him; told her that prison was vile; cried at the thought of going back there and told her she would have to tell the police that she wanted to stop the case. Arresting Ray, at this stage and charging him at least with a breach of bail should have got him back into custody and freed Sarah from further pressure but nothing was done either to investigate him or to give her more protection against him.

CPS decided to continue the case without Sarah and soon she telephoned police again to say not merely that she wanted to withdraw but that her allegations were untrue. No rape had ever happened. It seems that nobody believed her. Later when she told the senior policeman that her allegations were all true, he told her that he knew and that when she had denied them
 “I thought it was only a matter of time before you came to me and said yes they did happen”
The Guardian relates that Ray sent his sister to tell her that it “would be helpful” if she said she had lied. She handed her the phone and drove Sarah to the police station. Police colluded in a withdrawal statement that they knew to be untrue and, having failed for a second time to tackle Ray’s pressure, arrested Sarah for succumbing to it. It is extraordinary that they behaved in that way when they strongly believed that Ray had raped her. Clearly, they could not charge her with lying in her withdrawal statement in saying that her rapes had not happened unless they could prove that the rapes were true.

In every case the CPS has to determine whether the evidence gives a more than 50% chance of a successful prosecution and whether proceeding is in the public interest. Question three needs little explanation. It is: How could any CPS solicitor decide that it was in the public interest to prosecute Sarah?
Equally, why did no prosecutor think it right to prosecute Ray and his sister for forcing the retraction?

None of the accounts of this case make any reference to a jury trial   so I assume that Sarah pleaded guilty. If that is so, the final question, to her solicitors is why? In the Guardian article she describes how the rapes were “savage” and that she called the police to save her life believing that Ray was going to kill her. By the time of her final withdrawal her relationship, was “half back on” presumably with all of its former characteristics of oppression. What jury would convict a woman in such a position? Duress or necessity were potential defences. If the solicitor thought she would get a shorter sentence for a guilty plea he was seriously mistaken, but this woman’s pathetic story could not have made a sensible judge be harsher to her had she pleaded not guilty and told it all in the witness box, where she would probably have had it all confirmed, to the court, by the police.
It is clear that police, prosecution and Judge did not take this woman’s long-term victimisation seriously enough. They weighed too lightly the oppressive power this spouse would have over her after years of abuse. Yet again, a complaint of rape and domestic violence brings re-victimisation for the woman. To someone who is raped by a person well-known to the victim this case makes clear that nobody in the criminal justice system will protect them from pressure to withdraw their complaint but everyone will blame them if they have to give way.  Many women, as a consequence, will never escape to seek help for fear of having the tables turned by an antagonistic justice system. This is a real disservice at a time when the legendarily low rape conviction rate has started to rise.