Going beyond reasonable doubt: Problems with historical sex convictions

Conviction rates for sexual offences are low Credit: Rudolf/DPA/Press Association Images

Jo Costello is a training manager at Ending Victimisation & Blame - an organisation that campaigns for an end to victim-blaming language.

Sexual abuse cases of any type, whether they happened many years ago, or more recently, are by their very nature, difficult to prove. They usually happen with only two people present, and there is very rarely an admission of guilt from the accused party. Even in cases where we have the 'irrefutable' evidence of DNA or physical evidence of harm, these can be disputed by claims that the act was consensual.

The problem with historical sexual abuse cases is that physical evidence is almost impossible to obtain, meaning that we are left with the words of the accused, and words of the accuser; polarised views that we are unable to reconcile. We return to the phrase 'one word against the other’.

In cases such as these, it is the responsibility of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to determine whether the evidence is credible, and meets the public interest test, and whether there is a “realistic prospect of conviction”. The CPS is aware that cases where the accused is a celebrity will be under even greater scrutiny than an ‘ordinary’ case (where both of those involved are unknown to the wider public). This shows that the concept of a ‘witch-hunt’ is misleading - we expect that in these cases, the CPS will be especially careful about meeting their evidential test.

We cannot discount the impact of trauma on memory. When a traumatic event has taken place, we do not always manage to retain information that would be useful for a prosecution. The way our bodies respond physiologically means we may fight for our lives, or take flight by disconnecting from the experience as it happens; or we may freeze and be unable to take any action at all. These responses cannot be controlled, and we must not discount the experiences of those who respond in particular ways.

Sex cases involving celebrities are subjected to even more scrutiny Credit: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

Conviction rates for sexual offences are low - we must remember that a Not Guilty verdict means that the Crown did not present evidence which would allow the jury to meet the burden of proof test and determine that the act(s) took place beyond all reasonable doubt.

The media and public continue to debate anonymity for defendants in cases of sexual violence and abuse, despite the coalition government reviewing the issue in 2011 and deciding there was no evidence to change the law. In the case of Stuart Hall, revealing his identity resulted in other victims coming forward with further allegations, which we should remind ourselves of, whenever this issue is discussed.

We must consign the term ‘witch-hunt’ to the history books and acknowledge that making a complaint to the police about a sexual offence is neither easy, nor more likely to be false than any other crime reported to the police.

Jo Costello is a training manager at Ending Victimisation & Blame - an organisation that campaigns for an end to victim-blaming language. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.