Michael Le Vell, an actor in the venerable British soap opera, Coronation Street, has been cleared by a jury of raping and sexually assaulting a teenage girl. The trial generated immense interest in England and was widely covered by the British media. Le Vell had been accused by the complainant of a series of rapes and sexual assaults that began at the age of six and continued for a period of eight years. The jury heard five days of evidence at the trial and returned a quick not guilty verdict on all twelve charges that Le Vell was facing in under five hours.
The acquittal of Michael Le Vell has been greeted by some supporters of Le Vell as the product of a celebrity witch-hunt. Le Vell has indicated that he plans to sue the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for mounting his spurious prosecution to recover his significant legal costs. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has publicly maintained that the prosecution was justified.
The decision to charge Le Vell in the case had an unusual history. The original decision of the Chief Crown Prosecutor in the North-West, Nazir Afzal, was that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges. After a complaint was made regarding the decision, it was reviewed by the Principal Legal Advisor to the DPP who overruled the decision not to prosecute Le Vell. The complainant by that time had augmented her account of sexual abuse with additional episodes that she later claimed to recall.
In a column in the Guardian on September 11, Julian Norman offered a resounding defence of the decision to prosecute Le Vell. She noted that the CPS, with a report of historic child abuse, would be relinquishing its responsibility and improperly assuming the role of judge and jury if it decided in advance that a potentially credible witness should be discounted as a result of the lack of any evidence corroborating her account.
Norman's ultimate point was that a complainant's word had to be taken as evidence. By this rigid standard in every case where a complainant merely uttered an allegation of sexual assault, the prosecution would be duty bound to prosecute.
The inherent difficulty with such an approach is ignores the reality that a complainant's account of historical abuse may be filled with such a variety of material inconsistencies and implausible features that there isn't any realistic prospect of conviction. In such a case it should be incumbent on a prosecutor not to proceed with the charges.
Julian Norman cited in her column ''new CPS guidelines'' disclose that factors frequently used to point to the untruthfulness of a witness ''including not reporting the offence immediately, an inconsistent account, voluntary return to the alleged abuser, a history of dishonesty or of drink or drugs abuse -- may in fact support the allegations, because such behaviour is often seen in victims of abuse.''
Such problematic CPS guidelines offer a roadmap to a miscarriage of justice and lack any proper scientific foundation. The CPS guidelines could lead to the following analysis of a complainant's account of sexual abuse:
1) A complainant reports the offence immediately -- supports the allegation
2) A complainant delays reporting the offence -- supports the allegation
3) The complainant provides a consistent account -- supports the allegation
4) The complainant provides an inconsistent account -- supports the allegation
5) The complainant stays away from her alleged abuser -- supports the allegation
6) The complainant agrees to return to her alleged abuser -- supports the allegation
7) The complainant has a history of veracity -- supports the allegation
8) The complainant has a history of dishonesty -- supports the allegation
9) The complainant has a history of alcohol or drug abuse -- supports the allegation
In each version the complaint's credibility could be bolstered leading to a foolproof and untarnished allegation. The much fairer approach is to acknowledge that there may be compelling reasons in a particular case for a complainant to delay bringing her complaint or for offering different accounts.