There has been an outpouring of anger over the past few days following the verdicts of not guilty reached by the jury over the nine charges of rape and sexual assault made against Conservative MP Nigel Evans. The Tories have been described as going to war against the CPS; the timbre of their discontent was captured in a furiously paranoid blog from Iain Dale, writing on Conservative Home, who claimed he “will not rest until they are made to come to terms with their poisonous agenda, wicked actions and duplicity”.
Sadly, he failed to make it clear what exactly this persecution is. It would be nice to think he was referring to the gross overrepresentation of working class, ethnic minority boys in police stop and search figures, but instead, it seems to involve accusations that the police and CPS have acted inappropriately over Evans and “broken” our justice system.
That Conservatives are complaining about the undoing of justice in England and Wales has a bittersweet twinge, as the coalition government (in particular Chris Grayling’s Ministry of Justice) has seemed hell-bent on dismantling fundamental tenets of the system over the past few years. It is they who are draining the CPS of resources. They have also cut civil and criminal legal aid, sought to bring about restrictions on judicial review, sanctioned the privatisation of probation, and cut back on the ability to use no-win no-fee lawyers. The most pressing problems with the justice system, then, can be firmly attributed to those now making the complaints.
So it goes with one of the chief bones of contention since Evans walked free: the frustration amongst Evans’ allies at the apparent gross unfairness of his reported legal bills of around £100,000. Bob Stewart, Evans’ fellow Conservative, appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics to talk about the high emotional cost of the case on his friend; he also explained the financial burden. At the end of his interview, Stewart insisted, “to be asked to pay this money, if that’s correct, it’s wrong: we’ve got to sort that”.
It is both factually correct and indeed morally wrong. But the only reason it needs to be sorted out is because this government brought in the legislation that made it so.
The price of fairness
In 2012, the coalition made changes so that defendants such as Evans who pay privately for their defence cannot receive a refund to cover their costs – even if acquitted. This spiteful piece of cost-cutting is rightly being chastised as an injustice; surely acquitted defendants should be restored to the position they were in before being accused. The state brings the case and it is its duty to prove the guilt of the defendant; it cannot be right that the defendant should have to pay for a case that the state could not win. It is all the more hypocritical that the same government that put these measures in place should be so aggrieved by them now, only when it affects one of their own.
Part of their disquiet stems from the idea that the prosecution effort was “disproportionately” rigorous, as suggested by Evans’s solicitor Daniel Burke: they used a QC, which prompted Evans to pay privately for his representation. Burke, apparently missing the irony that it his client’s government were presently set on undermining legal aid provision and turning the best lawyers away from the public purse, explained:
Had he chosen to be defended on a legal aid basis, he … would not have had the sort of representation needed to fight the prosecution case on an equal footing.
There was dissatisfaction at the resources that the CPS apparently devoted to collecting evidence. The proposition seems to be that the prosecuting authorities took sexual offence allegations too seriously.
There has been a move to place Evans alongside other recent verdicts for rape and sexual assault cases involving acquitted celebrities – Travis, Le Vell, Roache – insinuating a trend for weak prosecutions based on dubious evidence.
Some Tories are calling for a higher threshold of evidence for sex allegations; the Attorney General wants answers from the CPS on failed sex charges; David Davis has demanded an urgent overhaul in the way sexual offences are investigated and prosecuted lest “innocent men” should be victimised. Of course, they represent the party from which one MP reacted to the Evans allegations by suggesting that victims of unwanted sexual advances toughen up and “grow a pair”.
These rumblings are unhelpful. They perpetuate the myth that false accusations of sexual crimes are rife, and exacerbate an unaccommodating climate for victims in which a high proportion of sexual offences are not reported to the police. Campaign groups urge caution over criticising prosecuting authorities for the more proactive line they have taken post-Savile.
Justifying the prosecution, the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, reminded us that the CPS subject evidence to a different test than the jury in a trial. The CPS need only believe there’s a realistic prospect of conviction in a case, while the jury must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the claims against a defendant are true. Those who criticise the prosecution for overegging Evans’s case forget that our justice system is adversarial, and relies on powerful arguments on both sides of the equation. Once a charge is brought, the job of police and prosecution is simply to put together as strong and coherent a narrative as they can.
This should not be a problem when there is a strong criminal defence profession to rebut it; they are just allegations and the equality of arms means that we give defendants every chance to contest them. Those who rush to condemn Evans’s being in the dock have fallen into the increasingly common trap of instantly commenting on any news event. A massive 86% of cases brought by the CPS end up in prosecution, but the fact that this prosecution failed should not be held up as some damning indictment of our system; it should reassure us that it works to protect the innocent.
If Evans was so obviously not guilty despite the strong efforts made to prove the case against him, the public should be satisfied justice was served. If such victories for justice may become increasingly few and far between, that will not be the fault of the CPS but of the Conservative politicians currently baying for their blood; it is their policies that will make it harder for defendants to properly contest charges in the future. What is emerging on their watch is an increasingly two-tier system, where only the wealthy will be able to afford adequate representation.
Since Evans and his supporters are correct that more money is put into constructing cases against them because of their public profiles, it is sadly apt that they will be the only members of society financially equipped to fight their corner. While the rich will have proper trials with prepared, dedicated and talented lawyers, the rest of us will be doomed to simply go through the motions – and be financially ruined in the process, regardless of the verdict.