The value of human rights in ending violence against women and girls

Human rights are back in the spotlight this week, as a landmark case relating to serial rapist black cab driver, John Warboys, is heard in the Supreme Court.

End Violence Against Women Coalition, along with Southall Black Sisters, Rape Crisis England & Wales and Nia, intervened in this case, in opposition to the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police.

This case dates back to 2014, when the High Court found multiple failings by the Metropolitan Police effectively left cab driver Warboys free to attack women between 2002 and 2008. Its believed Warboys committed over one hundred rapes and sexual assaults on his female passengers.

The High Court found that the police failed to take reasonable steps to investigate when women reported crimes. The court heard that the police didn’t take the women seriously, failed to collect evidence or question witnesses and didn’t prioritise sexual violence because it was harder to clear up – instead they focused on other, easier to solve, crimes. The failures by the police, both structural and operational and meant Worboys was able to rape many more women, amounted to a breach of the women’s human rights.  The High Court awarded the two complainants damages of around £20k each. More importantly the court ruling led to an independent review into rape investigations at the Met conducted by Dame Angiolni and some improvements in police practice.

Now the Home Office and the Met are seeking to over-turn the finding in the Supreme Court, which would undermine the ability of victims to hold the police to account when they catastrophically fail in their duty.

Women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and therefore also by police failures in this field. About 85,000 women (compared to 12,000 men) are raped in England and Wales every year and only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police. There are many reasons for women’s reluctance to report - but they include a perception that the police won’t take them seriously or would judge them or their actions instead of focusing on the perpetrator. This fear is understandable, still only 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction.

The Warboys case is an example of how the Human Rights Act can be used to drive change in police practice.

If things go very badly 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. There are no such mechanisms for dealing with the police in UK law. The Human Rights Act fills this gap.

The UK government has made much of its commitment to ending violence against women and girls (VAWG). The government’s VAWG strategy, launched by Theresa May in her role as Home Secretary, is ambitious. Subsequent recent announcements on issues such as sex and relationships education in schools show that with women in several key offices of state, the issue remains on the Government’s radar.

So it’s disappointing to see the Government on the wrong side of this case.

The public believe that the police exist to help keep them safe. This week’s legal action implies that the government and the Met, by contrast, believe the police do not have a duty to prevent, by doing their job, the most serious crimes, even when they have the information and ability to do so.

There is much to do in the campaign to reduce levels of sexual violence in the UK and address stubbornly low reporting and poor conviction rates. The Human Rights Act is an important tool, which has already been useful in improving police practice. We must now hope that the Supreme Court agrees with us – and with the High Court – that when rapists like Warboys are left for years to perpetrate their crimes and obvious opportunities are missed, the police need to be held to account.

Veronica Oakeshott writes in her capacity as Public Affairs Manager for the End Violence Against Women Coalition