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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

K.6: The justice system response to child sexual abuse

71. The criminal and civil justice systems play an important role in the way the State responds to child sexual abuse.

The criminal justice system

72. Investigating and prosecuting those who commit criminal offences involving the sexual abuse of children is rightly a matter of significant public interest. Inadequate responses of the police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts therefore featured in many of the Inquiry’s investigations and was a matter frequently raised by Truth Project participants when giving their accounts. The length of time taken to investigate and prosecute child sexual abuse cases was, and remains, a matter of significant concern. Delay within the criminal justice system adds to the harm caused by the abuse itself, and can have a profound impact on victims, survivors and complainants as well as those against whom allegations have been made.

73. While it is unrealistic to expect that law enforcement will be able to prevent all offences of child sexual abuse from being perpetrated, there are steps that can be taken to make abuse as difficult as possible to commit and in doing so reduce the risk of harm to children. A sexual harm prevention order may be made by a court after a person has been convicted of a sexual offence, such as rape, sexual assault or possession of indecent images of children. A sexual risk order may be made where there has been no conviction but the court “is satisfied” that the individual has engaged in “an act of a sexual nature as a result of which it is necessary to make such an order”. The police also use child abduction warning notices – which do not require a court order – to make it more difficult for the offender to meet with the child. For the use of such tools to be effective, the police need to access such information easily, and the terms of the notice or order need to be monitored. Better evidence is also required about the extent to which these notices and orders are being issued.

74. The Inquiry identified a number of failings by police forces investigating allegations of child sexual abuse. For example, there were failures to investigate fully due to assumptions about the credibility of the child. Some children, particularly those in care, were often considered as being less worthy of belief which led to a less than thorough investigation. Victims and survivors’ experiences of the criminal justice system were often affected by the knowledge, skills and attitude of individual officers. Allegations must be properly investigated in fairness to both the complainant and the accused. Investigations into child sexual abuse should not be driven by an investigator’s view about whether the complainant is worthy of belief, or any subjective view about the veracity of the complaint. All allegations need to be taken seriously and dealt with professionally.

75. Not every allegation of child sexual abuse will enter the criminal justice system. Only an estimated 7 percent of victims and survivors informed the police at the time of the offence and only 18 percent told the police at any point. Where allegations are reported to the police, fewer still result in a conviction. Some of the cases examined by the Inquiry identified procedural and legal errors – as well as delays – in the Crown Prosecution Service decision-making process. Where the allegation predominantly relies on the account of the complainant, as very frequently occurs in child sexual abuse cases, this can create difficulties in meeting the evidential test for bringing a prosecution.

76. Between 2016 and 2020, the numbers of both prosecutions and convictions fell by around 25 percent. This is seemingly indicative of a broader decline in the number of prosecutions for offences of rape, such as that recorded in the End-to-End Rape Review Report on Findings and Actions (the Rape Review, June 2021). The Rape Review identified a number of factors contributing to the decline in cases reaching a court, including “delays in investigative processes, strained relationships between different parts of the criminal justice system, a lack of specialist resources and inconsistent support to victims”.

Victims’ experience of the criminal justice system

77. Delays within the system and in ensuring that victims, survivors and complainants are able to give their best evidence and are supported throughout the process remain specific causes of concern. In addition to delays at the investigative and charging stage, for the year ending 31 December 2021, it took an average of 252 days for a case of child sexual abuse at the Crown Court to be completed. The emotional strain that delay places on victims and survivors and the accused cannot be underestimated. Such delays may lead some individuals to withdraw their allegations, which will typically mean that a prosecution is not possible. The government’s 2021 Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy acknowledges “the importance of swift case progression for victims’ and survivors’ wellbeing”, although it does not set out any specific plan to minimise delay. Measures have been introduced to try to minimise delay on victims and complainants, but it is unclear whether they will succeed in doing so. At the end of December 2021, there were 58,818 outstanding cases at the Crown Court, the entirety of which cannot be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic as there was already a backlog of 37,434 cases pre-pandemic resulting from cuts to budgets for the criminal justice system.

78. Delay is a challenge facing the criminal justice system as a whole, but improving the experience of victims and survivors is more easily addressed. While the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime in England and Wales (Victims’ Code) sets out “the services and a minimum standard for these services that must be provided to victims of crime”, it is not uniformly adhered to and there is no mechanism to monitor and enforce compliance with the Code.

79. In April 2018, the Inquiry’s Interim Report recommended a joint inspection of compliance with the Victims’ Code. The first national compliance report was due in early 2020, but in October 2020 the Ministry of Justice indicated that the operational demands of the COVID-19 pandemic had meant that further development of the Victims’ Code compliance monitoring framework had not been possible.

80. Evidence gathered subsequently by the Inquiry suggests that the Victims’ Code is still not being consistently applied and followed. There are also ongoing concerns about access to special measures, which seek to improve the quality of a witness’s evidence given in court. In December 2021, the government launched a consultation on the Victims Bill to “build on the foundations provided by the Victims’ Code to substantially improve victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system”. In June 2022, the government responded to the consultation and committed to “enshrine the Victims’ Code in law” and to place criminal justice agencies “under a duty to review their compliance with the Victims’ Code – using data and victim feedback to improve their performance”. This includes bringing in legislation so that “criminal justice inspectorates carry out regular joint inspections on victims’ issues”.

81. However, legislative change will not happen immediately. In the interim, greater focus is required on compliance with the Victims’ Code. The Inquiry therefore reiterates its recommendation that there should be a joint inspection regarding compliance with the Victims’ Code.

Recommendation 14: Compliance with the Victims’ Code

The Inquiry recommends (as originally stated in its Interim Report, dated April 2018) that the UK government commissions a joint inspection of compliance with the Victims’ Code in relation to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, to be undertaken by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, His Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation.

The civil justice system

82. Victims and survivors may separately bring a civil claim and face a number of difficulties when seeking to obtain compensation via the civil justice system.

83. Claims can be brought directly against an abuser but are usually brought against the institution in which the abuse took place or against those responsible for that institution. It can be unclear whether the defendants have public liability insurance in place, as a result of which, in April 2018 and September 2019, the Inquiry made recommendations about the establishment of a public liability register.

84. Much of the approach during the process turns on the attitude of the defendants and their relationships with their insurers and their solicitors. In recent years some insurance companies have developed guidance to assist their claims handlers in dealing with child sexual abuse claims. A code of practice, recognising the long-term emotional and psychiatric or psychological effects of child sexual abuse on victims and survivors, is awaited from the Local Government Association (the national membership body for local authorities).

85. Even when claims succeed or are settled, many victims and survivors are dissatisfied with the outcome as they do not ordinarily obtain an explanation or apology for what had happened to them. This likely reflects that the primary purpose of a civil claim is to obtain financial compensation, which does not always align with objectives such as having their ‘day in court’ and obtaining some acknowledgement. Claims may be settled without an admission of liability, acceptance of responsibility or an apology; for some victims and survivors, these may be more important than financial compensation.

The limitation period

86. Most claims are modest in value and many claims do not result in compensation being paid. A significant number of claims are prevented from proceeding by statutory time limits, known as limitation periods, after which time claims can no longer be pursued. There is an extendable three-year limitation period for personal injury claims relating to sexual abuse. In all cases involving children, the limitation period does not start to run until the claimant reaches the age of 18, giving all claimants until at least the age of 21 to commence legal proceedings. Very few victims and survivors of child sexual abuse bring claims before the expiration of the limitation period and therefore, if the defence of limitation is raised, they must very often ask the court to exercise its discretion to allow their claims to proceed.

87. The Inquiry has received evidence that the defence of limitation operated unfairly as a barrier at three stages: in claims being taken on by lawyers, because often funding cannot be obtained unless it is likely that the claim will succeed; when valuing and settling claims, given the risk of losing on the grounds of limitation; and at trial, when limitation issues can be both intrusive for claimants and difficult to predict in terms of outcome. As accepted by a number of defendant solicitors and insurers, limitation therefore presents a barrier to justice for victims and survivors.

88. The Inquiry has considered a number of ways in which the current regime might be changed, as it was clearly not designed with the needs of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in mind. They have different needs and require different treatment from personal injury claimants more generally. The very nature of child sexual abuse can make it difficult for victims and survivors to discuss their experiences. Other jurisdictions around the world have reformed the law of limitation relating to child sexual abuse claims. The Inquiry recommends that the limitation period should be removed in all cases involving child sexual abuse, other than those that have been dismissed or settled, while preserving the right to a fair trial.

Recommendation 15: Limitation

The Inquiry recommends that the UK government makes the necessary changes to legislation in order to ensure:

  • the removal of the three-year limitation period for personal injury claims brought by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in respect of their abuse; and
  • the express protection of the right to a fair trial, with the burden falling on defendants to show that a fair trial is not possible.

These provisions should apply whether or not the current three-year period has already started to run or has expired, except where claims have been:

  • dismissed by a court; or
  • settled by agreement.

They should, however, only apply to claims brought by victims and survivors, not claims brought on behalf of victims and survivors’ estates.

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