In part 1 of this series, we looked at the issue of consent in EastEnders’ latest controversial and compelling storyline. The action revolves around a rape allegation made by Ruby Allen against two men she went back to a house party with on a drunken night out. The full background is set out in part 1 here.
Since the last blog, Ruby has reported the allegation to the police and her friends, Martin and Stacey have been interviewed as witnesses. In this blog, we will look at how reporting a rape or sexual assault would really unfold in practise. In part 3, we will consider witness interviews.
What the viewers saw
Ruby was at first reluctant to report the rape but after talking with her friend Stacey, who confided that she had also been sexually assaulted a number of years ago but didn’t report it, Ruby plucked up the courage to go to the police.
We only see Ruby approach the desk at the police station and tell the officer on duty that she would like to report a rape.
How realistic was this…?
The evidence provided by complainants in a rape case is critical, not least because, aside from the accused, there are rarely any other witnesses to the actual incident. In England and Wales, there is no time limit to reporting a sexual offence so a report can be made to the police at any time.
Once reported, the police will decide whether to investigate the case. Although rape investigations follow national guidelines, strategies and police methods can vary across police forces.
In practise, the police will usually first take an initial statement to establish the basic facts. Detailed questions are not appropriate during the report taking stage and this initial account will usually be handed over to a special sexual offences team to look into.
The College of Policing Guidelines state that the complainant’s safety and support is paramount at the first response stage. With this in mind, the officer may decide it is appropriate to refer the individual to a rape and sexual offences support service.
The next stage of the process is when the complainant gives their ‘full account’. Ruby would have been asked detailed questions about what happened and asked to recount as much of the event as she can remember.
Ministry of Justice Guidelines suggest that interviews of complainant of sexual assault are taken under the ‘Achieving Best Evidence’ (ABE) format. This means that the interview should be conducted by an appropriately trained officer and often their account is audio and visually recorded so if the case does go to court, this video can be played as part of the complainant’s evidence.
The next step is usually to question the accused. The difference in approach, tone, surroundings and compulsion for the complainant and accused are quite stark.
Reporting rape – recent controversies in the press
Earlier this month, protesters from victims’ group held a demonstration outside the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) building demanding that authorities stop asking women for vast amounts of personal data when they report sexual offences.
Victims’ groups have said that women are being consistently told that their case cannot reach court unless they give the police access to their personal communications, mobile phones or sign statements which let investigators access their health records. They say that the intrusion of the police investigation can deter some women from coming forward and the sharing of personal data with their perpetrators can leave them feeling distressed and vulnerable.
This comes in the wake of the recent scandals over failures to disclose crucial evidence, including messages and pictures stored on devices, which caused several rape trials to collapse. Investigations are taking longer than ever before as vast amount of digital material has to be analysed from a variety of devices. The CPS said there had been no change in policy on how prosecutors are making charging decisions (though the revised Code for Crown Prosecutors recognises the “explosion in digital evidence” seen in recent years as a real challenge for prosecutors). In reality, they collect the same information regarding the accused, often under compulsion.
The CPS applies the same test of “sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” to all cases, but the benchmark can prove especially difficult in cases of rape and sexual assault which routinely hinge on conflicting accounts given by complainants and the accused.
There is a difficult balance to be struck in respecting the privacy of those who are complainants of sexual assault and ensuring that there is a thorough investigation which protects defendants’ right to have a fair trial.
The police will investigate the matter by collecting evidence from a variety of sources. For example, they could seek CCTV from the club, look at the social media profiles of those involved, look at the accused phone records and interview other people that were present.
Stacey and her husband Martin, who were also at the club on the night in question, were asked by the police to be interviewed as witnesses.