Barriers to justice for survivors of child sexual abuse


In the UK, the number of child sexual abuse cases that conclude with a charge or summons is shockingly low.

Many blame the low conviction rate on cases failing to pass the Full Code Test, for either evidential or public interest reasons. However, survivors face many more barriers to justice before cases even make it to trial.

From distrust of the police, to institutional corruption, and systemic racism and prejudice, many survivors are either discouraged from reporting their experiences or actively prevented from seeking justice.

Shockingly low conviction rates

According to data collected by the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), one in five adults, aged 18 to 74, are subjected to at least one kind of abuse before they reach the age of 16. That’s an estimated 8.5 million people. Further to this, data shows that an estimated 3.1 million adults, aged 18 to 74 years, suffered sexual abuse before the age of 16.

By the end of March 2019, a total of 227,500 child abuse offences were recorded police in the UK. Disturbingly, only 4% of these reported cases resulted in a charge or summons. This is down 3.4% from the previous financial year.

In addition to this, according to (CPS) figures, there has been a 22% decrease in the number of suspects of child abuse cases referred by police for further investigation. Moreover, the number of suspects referred to the CPS for a charging decision was down from 9,185 in 2018, to 7,138. The charging rate has also fallen by 5% and prosecutions are down 18%. Although, ONS attributes this decline, in part, to the fall in referrals from police.

Commenting on these startling figures, Alex Mayes, at the independent charity Victim Support, said: “It is extremely concerning that only 4% of recorded child abuse cases result in a charge or summons”.

It is even more concerning when considering that the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), reported that around one in seven adults who called its helpline had never reported their abuse.

In 2019, NAPAC answered 8,658 calls on its support line and replied to hundreds of support emails. However, there were 62,840 call attempts to the support line during this period. This indicates that the number of people who have experienced child sexual abuse is much higher than the estimated figures.

“Evidential” issues

From 2004, the CPS took over charging decision for the majority of cases, including those relating to child sexual abuse. These decisions are made with reference to the Code for Crown Prosecutors (the Code) and its Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse.

As a result, a case will not be taken further if it does not pass the “Full Test Code”. In order for a case to pass, prosecutors must believe that there is a realistic prospect of conviction and that prosecuting would be in the public interest. However, the criminal standard of proof is high.

Subsequently this explains why the percentage of cases progressing further through the justice system is so low. According to Home Office data, just under half of sexual abuse cases recorded by the police (45%) did not go any further due to “evidential difficulties”.

Institutional corruption and the domino effect

In addition to survivors’ awareness that their case is unlikely to end in a prosecution, with numerous revelations of institutional corruption and cover-ups, trust in the justice system has been significantly weakened.

An investigation report by the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), into child sexual abuse linked to Westminster, released some deeply troubling revelations. Not only did the government brush aside historic child sexual abuse, senior police officers deliberately obstructed investigations into MPs and Lords, as these cases were deemed “too political” to be pursued.

One retired officer, Robert Glen, who worked in the Clubs Office, told the inquiry that his team had enough evidence against MP Sir Cyril Smith to prosecute for child sexual abuse, but that this was thwarted by senior officers. Another prominent MP who was allegedly helped by the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office to evade prosecution, was MP Victor Montagu.

Other prominent figures who were allegedly enabled to evade prosecution include, Peter Morrison, Sir Peter Hayman, Jimmy Saville, David Chesshyre, Sir Edward Heath and Lord Greville Janner, to name but a few.

Ultimately, the report outlines that there have been significant failures by Westminster institutions in relation to child sexual abuse. It states: “This included failure to recognise it, turning a blind eye to it, actively shielding and protecting child sexual abusers and covering up allegations”.

Meanwhile, back in 2016, the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) announced it was commencing 187 investigations into failings by 18 police forces across the country. This concerned their handling of historic child sexual abuse cases, accompanied by allegations of “high level” corruption.

Since then, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), has reportedly received 415 completed referrals for “the category that relates to abuse of position for a sexual purpose” . From April 2016 to March 2017, forces made 100 referrals. This increased to 172 in the following year, with 143 referrals up to 31 March 2019. This shows that sexual abuse corruption is still very much present in the forces that were created to safeguard and protect.

Understandably, these figures lead to an atmosphere of distrust against the police and other justice institutions for survivors. According to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Children’s inquiry report, “Children and the Police,” there is a significant “lack of trust in the police” among survivors. Moreover, it states that attitudes towards police are often characterised by “feelings of mistrust and sometimes fear”.

Accompanying this, further barriers were revealed by the APPG’s inquiry report on survivors’ experiences of support and the criminal justice system. It found that there was a lack of “guidance” provided to survivors by the CPS. It also outlined that many survivors felt “cut adrift by police and the CPS” and expressed that they were not provided with support to get through the process.

Commenting on the changes that need to be made, Sarah Champion MP, Chair of the parliamentary group, said: “True recognition of the impact of child sexual abuse would mean investment in preventative and early intervention services, including high-quality therapeutic services, trauma training for frontline health, education and welfare professionals, and a criminal justice process that respects and accommodates the needs of traumatised survivors”.

Racism and cultural stereotypes

A recent report investigating the impact of cultural stereotypes and racism on disclosing and reporting child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities, shows that there are additional barriers to justice.

The report by the IICSA, interviewed 82 people, aged 19 to 74 years old, from mostly African, Caribbean or other black ethnic groups (49%), and Asian ethnic groups (33%). The report noted that there is a significant level of distrust in institutions from ethnic minorities, underpinned by “direct or indirect experience,” of statutory institutions holding racist views. Many participants also expressed that they felt “othered” by institutions.

It also found that as a result of institutions seeking to be “culturally sensitive,” there has been either inappropriate intervention or no intervention at all, in cases of child sexual abuse. This lack of intervention is also noted to be motivated by a fear of “disrupting community cohesion”.

This was an attitude present in dealing with the Rotherham grooming gangs, which led to widespread child sexual abuse being ignored for years. The police’s failure to intervene led to  1,500 victims being subjected to horrific child sexual exploitation.

On top of this, the report outlined that for those who had seen their cases go through the criminal justice system, there were feelings of both anger, and sadness. Many labelled the process as “another abuse” and “an absolute trauma”.

Reflecting on the report’s findings, Holly Rodger, Principal Researcher at the inquiry, said: “Participants’ feelings of being ‘othered’ by professionals and institutions was a significant obstacle to reporting abuse, as were feelings of shame, stigma and a fear of not being believed. The importance of education, greater awareness and listening to the voices of survivors from ethnic minority backgrounds is clear”.

Moving forward…

While it appears that some advancements have been made in the way of supporting survivors of childhood sexual abuse, it is clear that both the police and the CPS, need to do more.

Progression in this area, and ensuring that more survivors feel able to come forward, will be reliant on the justice system making a concerted effort to become more open, empathetic, and human.

However, the existence of corruption and cover-ups relating to child sexual abuse appears ongoing and persistent. Clearly, much more needs to be done to dismantle the institutions that protect child abusers, in order to completely lift the veil.

Reflecting on this, Victims’ Commissioner Vera Baird said: “Survivors ought to feel they have rights and are restored by the system not further damaged. If we act correctly now, hopefully we will never require an inquiry like IICSA ever again”.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn