Another shocking trial, another shocking verdict. This week, Judge Joanna Greenberg QC gave a non-custodial sentence to a teacher convicted on two counts of sexual activity with a child by a person in a position of trust. In justifying her decision, Greenberg said of Stuart Kerner’s victim, a 16-year-old schoolgirl: “If grooming is the right word to use, it was she who groomed you, [and] you gave in to temptation.”
The judge said Kerner was “emotionally vulnerable” because of problems with his wife’s pregnancy. It would be easy to assume that he is the victim here.
This certainly isn’t the first time that such attitudes towards victims have emerged in court, and over the years feminists have been loud and tenacious in protesting against them. This includes a number of rape survivors who have waived their anonymity to speak out against their own dreadful treatment by the criminal justice system.
Go back to the 1980s and there are many egregious examples. In 1982, for instance, in Ipswich crown court, Judge Bertrand Richards fined John Allen £2,000. Allen had been found guilty of raping a 17-year-old hitchhiker, but the judge decided that the victim was guilty of “contributory negligence” for accepting a lift from a stranger. The case caused outrage, leading to Margaret Thatcher (who, let’s face it, never had a reputation for being pro-women) to make a statement in the Commons about the inappropriate remarks.
In that same decade there was the judge at the Old Bailey who said of a sexual assault against a seven-year-old child that although it was a serious offence it was the sort of accident that could happen to almost anyone; and the judge who told an attempted rapist that he hoped his employers would regard his fortnight in prison as a holiday. In 1988, I was part of a feminist protest outside the court after Judge Harold Cassell sentenced a former policeman to two years’ probation for sexually assaulting his 12-year-old stepdaughter, putting the abuse down to the difficulties encountered by a “healthy husband” whose wife is pregnant.
But it would be wrong to think these instances are confined to the past. I mention the 1980s examples to illustrate just how long this has been an issue, and how long people have been calling for change.
But despite the endless promises that “lessons will be learned” in rape and sexual assault cases, barely a month goes by without some dangerous, victim-blaming comment being made by police, lawyers or judges.
In 2012, for instance, at Caernarfon crown court, a 49-year-old man was convicted of raping a teenage girl. Jailing the rapist, the judge said: “She let herself down badly. She consumed far too much alcohol and took drugs, but she also had the misfortune of meeting you.” In August 2013, Neil Wilson, 41, was given a suspended prison sentence for sexual activity with a 13-year-old girl. Judge Nigel Peters accused Wilson’s victim of “egging him on”. Shockingly, even the prosecution lawyer, Robert Colover, called her “predatory”. The court of appeal later lifted the suspension on the sentence and replaced it with a prison term.
In April 2014, Bob Bellew, a gymnastics coach who sexually abused seven girls as young as six over a 40-year period walked free from court. Judge Joanna Korner said Bellew had demonstrated “genuine remorse”.
And in March 2014, 19-year-old Adam Hulin pleaded guilty to the oral rape and sexual assault by penetration of a 12-year-old girl. He had also given her a soft drink mixed with vodka. Hulin was sentenced to 100 hours of community service, a £60 victim surcharge and the requirement to attend six community reintegration sessions for the oral rape and sexual assault. George Lawson-Rogers QC, presiding over the case, ordered another charge of rape by penetration to be discharged but to remain on file. “I certainly wouldn’t want to do anything which would prejudice his future career,” said Lawson-Rogers during sentencing, adding that he was reluctant to “dismiss the contention that what happened was not by mutual consent”.
Some might suggest that more female judges would make a difference to victim-blaming in court, and clearly something needs to change. A report in 2012 from the House of Lords constitution committee found that both female and minority ethnic judges are significantly underrepresented, and that this has resulted in a lack of public confidence in the courts. But I am not so sure that appointing more female judges in and of itself would solve the particular issue of victim-blaming. Female judges, as well as female jurors, can be hard on rape complainants, possibly because they themselves have internalised the same dangerous mythology as their male counterparts. In November 2013, for instance, at a legal debate at the London School of Economics, Barbara Hewson, a human rights and civil liberties barrister, argued that rape victims can be partly to blame, saying that people who are raped can have a “moral responsibility” for the crime. She apparently forgot that the law says rape is only ever the fault of the rapist.
The Crown Prosecution Service guidance (2012) on rape includes a section on the common rape myths, including the myth that rape occurs only between strangers in dark alleys; that victims provoke rape by the way they dress or act, or drug and alcohol use; and that rape is a consequence of men being unable to stop themselves. Until these myths are challenged far and wide so that the general public stop absorbing them, nothing will change. At the same time, let’s campaign for a change in the way that judges are appointed and investigated. The appalling comments made in courtrooms in the 1980s are not, tragically, a thing of the past.