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Operation Yew Tree

View profile for David Lawrence
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The revelations of sexual impropriety on the part of Jimmy Savile following his death has rightly caused considerable outrage on the part of the public, particularly given the length of time over which his offending appears to have taken place.  Operation Yew Tree was mounted by the police in response, and has resulted in a number of high profile arrests and prosecutions.   Of the prosecutions that have come before the Courts to date, few have resulted in convictions.  A new trial has now commenced in relation to the alleged sexual activities of Rolf Harris.  Other prosecutions are likely to follow.

Given the limited measure of success, questions have been raised as to whether it is appropriate to prosecute cases of historic sexual misconduct, particularly given that the views of society towards such activity (and I am not referring to allegations of rape) may well have been different at the time the alleged offences were committed, to the views that are held now.

The fact is however, that there is now a much greater emphasis on the rights of a victim than perhaps was once the case, and this will play a greater part when the Crown Prosecution Service apply their code for determining whether a prosecution is in the public interest or the interests of justice and whether there are reasonable prospects of securing a conviction.   These decisions are not easy.  The very nature of the offences, particularly those of a historic nature, mean that there is often very little supporting evidence to corroborate what the victim says.   There is unlikely to be any forensic, photographic or other physical evidence.   Very often it may amount to effectively the word of the victim against the word of the defendant.   Given that a jury would need to be “sure” of a defendant’s guilt, it follows that the benefit of any doubt should go to the defendant and result in his or her acquittal.  The Crown Prosecution Service will need to be very sure of the credibility of the victim before deciding upon a prosecution.

Does that mean that because of the particular difficulties in securing a conviction that a blanket policy should be adopted of not prosecuting such persons.   Clearly not.   The credibility and attitude of victims will vary on an individual basis and when appropriate, they are entitled to have their allegations put to a defendant and tested by a Court.  That said, because of the difficulties, we should perhaps not be surprised at the relatively high acquittal rate.  With more prosecutions pending, time will tell whether the conviction rate improves or not or whether there is a change of emphasis by the Crown Prosecution Service when adopting their code for Crown Prosecutors in determining whether or not a future prosecution should take place.  

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