Reporting to the police
Someone who has been sexually assaulted and/or raped (the complainant) may choose to report this and take any evidence of the event to the police. There are also times when the complainant doesn’t approach the police, and someone else does.
The police will begin by taking witness statements. There are two kinds of witness statement:
The first is about the incident itself; what happened, where, when, who and how.
The second is known as a victim impact statement. This looks at how the incident has affected the person who was attacked. How did it make them feel, and how do they feel about it now? Has their life changed as a result of the attack, for example are they scared to leave the house, or do they have panic attacks?
The police gather up as much evidence as they can, and then they speak to the Crown Prosecution Service (the CPS) who will decide if there is enough evidence to ‘charge’ the attacker, which is the first step in taking the case to court. The person who was attacked doesn’t need to agree to this for it to happen, and are not in charge of any aspect of going to court. Everything is handled by the police and the CPS. Victims and other witnesses do not need a lawyer.
Taking the case to court
To bring a prosecution to court there must be A) enough evidence and B) it must be in the public interest to do so.
The prosecution brings the case. The burden is on the prosecution to prove the case and they must do so by making Magistrates or a jury 'sure' of the Defendant's guilt. (The standard of proof used to be phrased 'beyond a reasonable doubt').
A trial will start with a prosecutor’s opening speech to the jury or Magistrates where they explain what the prosecution case is. The prosecution will then call witnesses one at a time. They will be taken through their evidence by the prosecutor and then cross-examined by the defence.
At court, there are lots of systems set up to help people give evidence against their attackers. They can talk behind a screen, or even from a separate room. They can also give evidence away from the court and have it filmed.
Once all of the prosecution evidence has been heard, the defence will call their witnesses and present their evidence. Defence witnesses will be called one at a time, their evidence will be adduced by the defence barrister and then they will be cross-examined by the prosecution. The defence will then adduce any further evidence supporting their case. Once all evidence is finished the Prosecution make a closing speech, followed by the defence closing speech. The Magistrates or Jury will then retire to consider their verdicts.
Cases take completely different amounts of time to come to court and the length of a trial will depend on the number of witnesses and the amount or complexity of the evidence. Trial lengths can vary hugely.
Sentencing and sentences
A sentence is the punishment the judge decides is appropriate to give the attacker if they are found guilty of a crime. For some minor crimes, the judge might decide to give them a community order, which means they have to do volunteer work in the community. For serious crimes, like rape, they will probably give a “custodial sentence” which means they will tell the attacker they need to spend a certain amount of time in prison.
There are guidelines that judges have to follow to decide what sentence to give to offenders. They can be complicated as they look at lots of different things, like how old the offender is and the seriousness of the crime. Very serious crimes, including rape, carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. However, this does not mean that all rape convictions will result in life sentences. Again, the judge has to take into account lots of factors.
Sentencing can be affected by numerous factors including whether an offence was pre-planned, the impact on any victims, whether the offender was on drugs or drunk at the time, whether the Defendant has any previous convictions, any mental disorders or has shown genuine remorse. At sentencing a court will look at all of the ‘aggravating’ and ‘mitigating’ factors to do with the offence and the offender which could affect sentence.
If someone is sentenced to life in prison, it means that they have been convicted of a very serious offence. But in most circumstances it does not mean that they will spend the rest of their life in prison. Instead, the judge will decide when it will be appropriate for them to apply to be released from prison early (this is called being released on parole). If they apply for parole and are released they then serve the rest of their sentence outside of prison. If they commit another offence, even a minor one, they have to return to prison and serve the rest of their sentence.
There are some people who get a “whole life sentence.” This means they cannot ever be released from prison. These are very dangerous offenders who the judges think are too dangerous ever to be free.
When passing a life sentence, a judge must specify the minimum term (sometimes called the tariff) an offender must spend in prison before becoming eligible to apply for parole. The only exception to this is when a life sentence is passed with a ‘whole life order’ meaning that such an offender will spend the rest of their life in prison. A life sentence always lasts for life whatever the length of the minimum term – in other words, if the convicted person offends again during his/her lifetime then he/she can be sent back to prison under the life sentence (see Life Sentences).
What is a caution?
A caution is a formal warning issued to someone who has admitted an offence. Cautions are used to resolve minor offences where full prosecution is not seen as the most appropriate solution.
Cautions become ‘spent’ immediately and conditional cautions become spent after 3 months. Once a conviction/ caution/ reprimand is spent it does not need to be disclosed unless a person is applying for certain types of roles (for example working with children). However a caution stays on a person’s record for their whole life, and will show up on DBS criminal record checks.
A Youth Caution comes with definite repercussions – a variety of agencies can become involved and a caution can show up on heightened DBS background checks in later life (for jobs such as lawyers, teachers etc).