The attitudes of prosecutors and judges towards women are as bad as ever. We need radical change – and we need it now
Last modified on Thu 16 Dec 2021 12.31 GMT
After the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer earlier this year, a dam burst. Women came out on to the streets of Britain to protest against male violence, only to be met with police violence.
That dam is still flooding: at least 133 women in the UK have died at the hands of a man in 2021 so far. Countless more will have taken their own lives as a consequence of male violence. Women are tired of reading the names of the women killed by femicide each year, they are tired of reading about the increase in the reports of sexual violence and domestic violence, and they are tired of the failure of the criminal justice system to tackle the problem – as the virtual collapse of rape prosecutions over the past three years shows.
But perhaps for the first time in living memory, tackling the pandemic of violence against women and girls (VAWG) is high on the political agenda. I have been working in this area since the 1990s – as a lawyer and founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), which aims to change the structural disadvantage women and girls face across the criminal justice system. In the past five years alone, I have represented survivors of the serial rapist John Worboys in their action against the Metropolitan police, which failed to investigate him; represented Sally Challen and other women who killed abusive partners; and am currently involved in a super complaint about the failure to address police-perpetrated domestic abuse. However, in my experience, the attitudes of prosecutors and judges towards women are as bad as ever.
While initial announcements from the government were kneejerk and ill thought through – such as undercover police officers in nightclubs or apps to track women’s routes home – there may be substantial changes coming. This month, the government announced legislation that will put a new legal duty on local public bodies to tackle domestic abuse and sexual offences and has just announced plans for a new victim’s law. Meanwhile, there is growing pressure to make VAWG part of the strategic policing requirement – which would bring it in line with other serious crimes such as organised crime and terrorism.
Increasing the resources of police and other criminal justice agencies and making the tackling of VAWG a national strategic priority would certainly go some way to reversing the impact of austerity. A decade of underfunding has brought the criminal court system to its knees, with fewer specialist policing units, a dismantled probation service, fewer support services for women, and significant reductions in legal aid.
However, the comparison with the policing of terrorism may strike a chilling chord for black, Asian and minority women and men who have been adversely affected by the government’s Prevent strategy, aimed at identifying and disrupting potential recruits to terrorism, which has helped mainstream discrimination against them. Such cynicism about government intentions is further embedded by the discriminatory exclusion of migrant women from the protections offered in the recent domestic abuse bill, the attack on the right to public protest in the police, crime and sentencing bill, and the curtailing of routes to refugee status for women fleeing abuse under the nationality and borders bill.
In October the home secretary, Priti Patel, announced a public inquiry into “issues raised by the conviction of Wayne Couzens”. This could be an opportunity to undertake a deep, searching analysis of institutionalised misogyny within policing. However, the government’s resistance to putting the inquiry on a statutory footing suggests the prime minister’s promise to “fix” things in the wake of Everard’s murder is not a serious one. So I am working with the backing of more than 21 national women’s organisations to formally bring judicial review proceedings against the home secretary, to ensure this inquiry is the robust investigation into police-perpetrated abuse and violence against women that is so desperately needed.
So what does need to change if we are to begin to tackle the spectacular failings not only in policing, but across the criminal justice system? It is a question I am asked frequently. Instead of waiting for a public inquiry to provide answers, the CWJ has set out its own manifesto for change. The central principle of this manifesto is that women have a right to live free from the fear of male violence, which curtails our liberty and undermines our full participation in society.
We do not propose new laws in our manifesto, but rather we ask for the urgent and effective implementation of the laws that already exist. We ask that those investigating and prosecuting crimes of violence against women, those who judge and sentence, and those who manage the risk of individuals convicted act with the united aim and understanding of how to prevent further violence. We want radical transformation of the investigation and prosecution of crimes of VAWG, an end to victim blaming, police-perpetrated abuse tackled, and an understanding of who represents risk, to ensure criminal justice interventions are directed at the perpetrators and not the victim.
How might this work? Take the example of Effie (not her real name), a migrant woman we are advising, whose British partner – who had been physically and psychologically abusive towards her for months – called the police to their home, alleging she had physically injured him during an argument. At the time of this call, safeguarding concerns had already been raised by agencies, who recognised she was at high risk of harm from her partner. Yet instead of investigating who the “primary” perpetrator in the relationship was, the police arrested Effie and imposed strict bail conditions, which rendered her homeless and separated her from her breastfeeding child. She was convicted of assault, which we successfully appealed.
In another example, a parole board considering the release of a man widely reported to have drugged and sexually assaulted more than 100 women might ask itself whether to accept his account that he no longer represented a threat. This is exactly what happened with the case of Worboys. His release after just 10 years in prison was only stopped after I submitted a judicial review challenge on behalf of two of his victims.
Then there is the case of Sophie Moss, a vulnerable mother of two who died as a result of “prolonged” pressure to the neck at the hands of Sam Pybus. He was given just four years and eight months after the Crown Prosecution Service accepted his plea of manslaughter. Pybus claimed she “enjoyed erotic asphyxiation” (more commonly known as the “rough sex defence”, which is creeping in to murder cases).
Under our manifesto, a prosecutor may have questioned the idea that Moss “enjoyed” being strangled during sex on the say so of the man who killed her and another man who had had sex with her; and should have put other evidence before a jury, for example from the father of Moss’s children, which disputed the assertion she liked to be strangled.
Our manifesto recognises that all of this must happen within the framework of cultural change. As Mina Smallman – the mother of the two murdered sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, whose bodies were photographed and shared on a police WhatsApp group – said this week: “Those police officers felt so safe, so untouchable, that they felt they would take photographs with our murdered daughters.” She added: “There is more work to be done … we are part of the change that’s going to come in the culture of the police force.”
Only when there is an understanding of the structural inequalities between men and women, and the intersecting forms of discrimination that make some groups of women more vulnerable based on race, class and disability, will real change occur. In the meantime, we will keep fighting.
This article was amended on 16 December 2021 to clarify a reference to the Sophie Moss case. An earlier version said Sam Pybus “was given just four years and eight months for manslaughter after the CPS accepted his explanation that she ‘enjoyed erotic asphyxiation’.” The CPS says it did not accept the defendant’s account but brought a manslaughter charge due to insufficient evidence of intent to harm or kill.
Harriet Wistrich is a solicitor and the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice