How our justice system is letting down female victims of violence: Aisha K. Gill

The death of Sarah Everard has rightly received huge media attention in the UK and overseas. Yet, the equally appalling facts that a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK and that 1,425 women died at the hands of men between 2008 and 2018 rarely hit the headlines in such a compelling way or spark such a public outpouring of rage.

Demonstrators during a Reclaim the Streets protest, Parliament Square, central London, in memory of Sarah Everard. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Male violence against women and girls is however endemic. In 2020 alone, an estimated 1.6 million women in England and Wales were victims of domestic abuse. In the same year, approximately 620,000 women suffered a rape, sexual assault or attempted sex attack, yet only one in six reported the crime. Quite clearly, the current system is failing victims of violence and allowing many, many perpetrators to go unpunished.

In the 21 years I have been seeking justice for victims of gender-based violence, I have dealt with countless instances of fatal and non-fatal cases against abusers being dropped by the police or by the Crown Prosecution Service. In challenging these decisions, I have discovered that the prosecution’s case often falls apart because police officers misinterpret, destroy or inaccurately record evidence or even 
fail to gather key evidence in the first place because they deem the accused’s story more credible than the victim’s version.

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At times the criminal justice system discredits a victim who has delayed reporting. Worse still, police officers who ignore the testimony of female victims and witnesses are rarely reprimanded.

The 2008-09 investigation into police failures in the case of serial sex offender John Worboys provides a notable example of such negligence. In 2007, the Metropolitan Police Service failed to adequately respond to a woman’s sexual assault allegation against Worboys, who had not only committed numerous prior assaults, but would go on to commit many more after police believed his story over his victim’s and let him go. In 2008, the then Independent Police Complaints Commission established a community reference group of experts with specialist knowledge of gender-based violence and abuse; I was one of those experts.

The investigation discovered a series of missed opportunities to prevent Worboys from committing further offences and five police officers were disciplined. Worboys was subsequently convicted of 19 charges, including rape, sexual assault and administering a substance with intent to rape. Had the police taken Worboys’s first victim’s story seriously, other women would have escaped harm.

The police’s handling of the Worboys investigation was woefully inadequate and marked by a series of systemic failures — including questionable decision-making on the part of the Parole Board, whose risk assessments of sex offenders remain unreliable, that allowed a serial rapist to roam free.

Our community reference group called for changes to how the police deal with victims of sexual offences, highlighting that more must be done to improve public confidence in police responses to reports of rape and other sexual crimes. Despite making that call more than 10 years ago, it is striking how little has changed since.

While the Everard case has captured our national attention, we must also remember the numerous other women — particularly women of colour — whose recent tragic deaths have not galvanised the same levels of public anger.

Why do these women’s cases remain on the margins?

In June 2020, sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were murdered in a London park; in September 2020, 21-year-old Blessing Olusegun was found dead on Bexhill seafront.

While a post-mortem concluded that Olusegun had drowned, campaigners do not believe there has been a full investigation into her death. In February 2021, Bennylynn Burke, 25, and her daughter, Jellica, went missing from their home in South Gloucestershire. Their bodies were found in Dundee on 18 March 2021.

And just this week, as I paid my respects at the vigil held for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common Bandstand, my thoughts were with the family of Najeeba Al-Ariqy who was killed by her intimate partner, Al-Ariqy’s name is yet another that will be added to the Femicide Census.

We’re continuing to see a serious gap between rhetoric and reality around the whole issue of violence against women and girls and women’s safety more broadly. The rights of all women continue to be undermined, as every day, male privilege and entitlement, misogyny, racism and sexism contribute to a pandemic of violence that shows no sign of abating. Society, our criminal justice system and the police urgently need to find ways to confront and deal with these deep-rooted issues.

Ineffective and discriminatory policing and gender-biased court and sentencing processes are preventing women from accessing justice and obtaining effective redress for crimes against them.

Positive and effective police responses are often a postcode lottery, or simply a matter of which officer a victim encounters. Such failures in our system may also embolden men to believe that they will escape consequences, as so 
few prosecutions are successful. Enough is enough. It’s time to deal head on with the issue of male violence towards women.

The criminal system must put its powers to full use by holding men accountable for their actions. The police and other statutory services must also accept culpability when they make mistakes. This level of structural change requires investment, commitment and accountability. It also needs a single, cohesive strategy, not the fragmented responses presently offered by our government. The time for talking is over, we need real action.

Aisha K. Gill is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Roehampton and was involved in advising both the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to the murder of Banaz Mahmod from 2006-2010. Her work informed the MPS strategic Homicide Prevention Working Group on Honour Killings. In the last decade, she has been involved in training both the police and CPS specialist prosecutors on violence against women in majority and minority communities.

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