Women defend human right to hold police to account in the Supreme Court
13 March 2017
Today the Met Police, backed by Home Office, will seek a Supreme Court ruling saying police cannot be sued for failures that left violent, serial rapist on the street
In a historic case, the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), NIA, Rape Crisis England & Wales and Southall Black Sisters (SBS) are intervening to press the court to uphold women’s human rights including the right to protection from gender based violence, which imposes a duty on the Police to conduct adequate investigations into serious crimes of violence against women.
Background to the case
John Worboys, known as the ‘black cab rapist’ committed more than 100 rapes and sexual assaults on women in his cab between 2002 and 2008. He used identical methods over many years but, despite many women reporting him to the police, a catalogue of police failings including not taking the women seriously, not collecting evidence or CCTV information, and failing to search Worboys’ home, meant he was not caught and was left to continue his horrific offences.
Two of the women raped by Worboys (known as DSD and NBV), who had reported the crimes at the time of the offences in 2002 and 2007, sued the Metropolitan Police at the High Court alleging serious failings in the police investigations which might have prevented Worboys from raping the women.
The High Court’s landmark ruling established that the police have a duty under the Human Rights Act to investigate serious violence against women, and when they fail to meet this duty they can be held accountable in the courts. The case is significant not because of small amounts of compensation for harm inflicted but because it means the police can be held to account by victims when they significantly fail in their duty, and required to change their actual daily policy and practice.
The government and police are seeking to overturn the High Court findings, which have been upheld by the Court of Appeal, by appealing to the Supreme Court. In doing so they threaten to undermine a key safety net for the general public and take away the right of victims to get redress for police failings.
The importance of Human Rights to women
Human Rights Act obligations at stake in this case are relevant for anyone who has been the subject of a grave police failing. They are particularly relevant for women because all the evidence shows that cases of reported violence against women (whether rape, domestic violence, stalking, trafficking and other forms of gender based violence) have particularly poor detection, prosecution and conviction rates. In other words, women are disproportionately affected by police failings.
Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters said:
“Our experience shows how police failures in investigating crimes of violence against women are too many, too frequent and often too basic. This is compounded by an inadequate complaints system that severely restricts women’s access to protection, justice and equality.
“If the Rotherham child abuse cases and the Hillsborough disaster have taught us anything it is the need to ensure that police conduct is held up to scrutiny like any other state institution. There should be no immunity for the police when dealing with violence against women and girls. The State has a duty to protect women from violence, and this includes investigating crimes of violence thoroughly when they occur. If they fail in this duty, we should be able to hold them publicly to account through the courts. And for this to happen, women must be able to invoke the Human Rights Act.”
It is estimated that 85,000 women are raped every year and only about 15% of those women ever report to the police. The police have a huge job to do in building the confidence of women who do report, and not failing as catastrophically as they did in the Worboys case.
Jodie Woodward, Deputy Chair of Rape Crisis England & Wales commented:
“Rape Crisis England & Wales has supported this intervention to ensure victims and survivors’ rights are protected and that the state is held to account. The details of this case highlight that when there are police failings it has catastrophic impact. When women and girls report sexual offences to the police it is critical that they are taken seriously and their complaints are acted on promptly and effectively. It is essential that women and girls have access to reparation when the state fails.”
Karen Ingala Smith, Chief Executive of nia added:
“Many of the women nia support, who have decided to try to seek justice through the criminal justice system, tell us how they feel that police and other agencies do not take them seriously, disbelieve, blame, dismiss and talk over them so that they feel that no one is on their side. They just don’t understand why the system is so loaded against them when they are the victims with rights that the state is supposed to uphold and enforce. It is for this reason that we hope this case will spotlight state accountability for men’s violence against women so that women’s access to justice becomes a reality.”
Rachel Krys, co-director End Violence Against Women Coalition said:
“If things go disastrously wrong with other public services there is some form of redress. For example in cases of gross negligence by the NHS, the victim or the family of the victim can sue. It the Met Police and the Government get their way in this case there are no such mechanisms for dealing with the police in UK law.
“Being able to bring a human rights action in cases such as Worboys is important for the individuals involved and can also drive and incentivize systemic improvements. The findings of failings by the police in the Worboys case led to an independent review into rape investigations by the Met conducted by Dame Angiolini  which made 46 recommendations for better policy and practice. That is why it is so disappointing that the Metropolitan Police along with the UK government are now seeking to overturn it.”
Sarah Ricca, Partner Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors, solicitor to the four intervening women’s groups, said:
“This appeal arises from an historic claim brought by two victims of the serial rapist John Worboys against the Metropolitan Police, for a series of systemic and individual failings which left Worboys free to continue his crimes.
“The women brought their claims under Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment, including rape. They claim the police have a duty under Article 3 to investigate credible allegations of rape and in their case the police's numerous failings amount to an unlawful breach of this duty.
“First the High Court and then the Court of Appeal agreed with the women and upheld their claims. But having fought the case from the outset, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, now with the support of the Home Secretary, is appealing to the Supreme Court.
“The Commissioner argues that there is no actionable duty under Article 3. Alternatively, if there is a duty, it is limited merely to putting in place systems. It doesn’t apply to individual failings, so it doesn’t matter whether or not those systems are not made operational in a particular case.
“He also argues that individual failings shouldn’t be actionable in the courts, because historically they have refused to hold the police accountable for similar failings when they have been sued for negligence. They say this claim is overturning that principle ‘by the back door’.”