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Blog | 16 September 2023

The "Innocent Until Proven Guilty" Model - Inside and Outside the Courtroom.

New on the ISVA blog.

As a team that works closely within the criminal justice system, we often see misconceptions and confusion around police and court processes. 

This week we look closely at the “innocent until proven guilty” model that is often used outside of the courtroom in the comments section to defend those accused and charged with crimes. 

We wanted to explore this further and explain what this means in the criminal justice system, and what it means for survivors navigating it.

First of all, we know that the majority of survivors (estimated at around 84%) do not report to the police If we get too stuck into an “innocent until proven guilty” mentality, then what are we saying for this HUGE group of people? That if they didn’t report and therefore there is no possibility of a verdict of any kind, then it didn’t happen, and the perpetrator caused no harm to them?

That can’t be what people are suggesting, but is a logic that follows the “innocent until proven guilty” rhetoric we see online and in the media with sexual violence cases.

How does the system work?

Now let’s think about the criminal justice system itself. At present the vast majority of cases do not reach court. This isn’t because they are false. False claims are low for sexual offences, despite what some believe. Only around 1.3% of reported sexual offences get charged. 

To charge a case, the police have completed an investigation and passed it to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Crown Prosecution Service will then decide whether or not to charge the perpetrator based on two tests:

  1. Is it in the public interest to proceed with this case? It is rare for sexual offences to not meet this test.
  2. That there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.

So, point two isn’t about whether or not it happened. It isn’t even about the CPS deciding if they think it happened or not. It is about whether or not they think have enough evidence to convince a jury of 12 people that it happened beyond any reasonable doubt. Many cases don’t pass this stage.

We have written and talked a lot lately about disgraced former Manchester United player Mason Greenwood’s arrest and subsequent dropping of charges. Greenwood’s case is a perfect example of a case that did pass this stage. He was charged following an investigation (we’ve seen lots of confusion about this too). The case was discontinued because the survivor seemingly reconciled with him and withdrew her support, which baffled those who do not understand abusive dynamics. We know that within relationships where there is abuse, people may leave and return many times.

We cannot emphasise enough – if a perpetrator doesn’t get charged, it doesn’t mean the sexual violence didn’t happen; it doesn’t even mean the police or CPS thought it didn’t happen. It means they felt that with the evidence they have they wouldn’t be able to convince a jury it happened, all the while there’d be a defence barrister working their very hardest to plant that seed of reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds.

The odds are unfortunately stacked against survivors in this world, but there is constant work and advocacy underway to address this.

So what is “beyond reasonable doubt?”

Now, let’s imagine a case where the suspected perpetrator has been charged. There has been enough evidence for the police and CPS to think they could overcome 12 people having any potential reasonable doubt that the offence(s) took place. And we get to court. A jury can’t think in “if’s” and “maybe’s”, for example, “It maybe happened, but I can’t be sure”, or “What if the evidence wasn’t what the CPS is saying it is, but is what the defence is saying it is?” – that’s reasonable doubt, and a potential “Not Guilty” verdict. 

They aren’t saying the perpetrator was innocent, they’re saying they didn’t feel they could find them guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, based on what they have seen and heard at the trial. Some jury members may think the perpetrator didn’t do it, but that certainly isn’t the whole picture. And this is another element of our low conviction rate.

What can we do?

We need to establish clarity between the criminal justice world securing a conviction, and the concept that under the current system, this might not always be possible despite the validity of the survivor’s claims. 

So what are we saying? Believe survivors; take them seriously. The vast majority of people who perpetrate sexual crimes are not reported or found guilty; indeed only a tiny percentage will have a conviction for their offences. We cannot nullify or dismiss survivors’ experiences by clinging to a phrase that needs context and consideration.

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