Human rights, the Home Secretary and rape
The Metropolitan Police will next week argue in the Supreme Court that they should not be legally obliged to follow their own guidance and properly investigate serious crimes such as sexual assault and rape.
But civil liberties and human rights campaigner Liberty is intervening in the case of ‘DSD’ and ‘NBV’ – two victims of ‘black cab rapist’ John Worboys, who is thought to have sexually assaulted or raped more than 100 women between 2002 and 2008.
The Metropolitan Police (the Met) consistently failed to properly investigate reports of his crimes, allowing him to continue his attacks for years.
In 2014, the High Court found the police force had breached their duties under the Human Rights Act, by failing to properly investigate these appalling crimes. This was upheld by the Court of Appeal in 2015.
This was a crucial victory in combating violence against women and girls – confirming that victims of sexual assault and rape have a legal right to a thorough investigation when they make credible allegations.
Despite this, the Met has used taxpayers’ money to appeal the decision at every stage, arguing that the police should not be liable for even the most flawed investigations which allow sexual predators to strike again.
This latest appeal was granted only after then Home Secretary Theresa May took the extremely unusual step of making submissions to the Supreme Court in support of the police’s application before there had even been a decision – a highly politicised move that lays bare the true motivations behind the government’s plan to repeal the Human Rights Act.
In December 2015, the Supreme Court informed the Met that their grounds were unarguable – but that those submitted by the Home Secretary were “potentially arguable”. The Met adopted those grounds, and were granted an appeal. The current Home Secretary continues her involvement in the case.
Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, which protects people’s right not to be tortured or suffer inhuman or degrading treatment, puts a positive duty on police to properly investigate very serious crimes.
The Prime Minister intends to repeal the Act and replace it with a restricted “Bill of Rights”.
Liberty understands a central proposal is to relieve state bodies of these positive duties – which have exposed serious failings by police and others and led to vital improvements in legislation, policies and guidance.
The Met’s case, based on Theresa May’s submissions, centres on the argument that those duties should be restricted to putting in place the necessary structure to investigate those crimes – and not extend to the actual execution of that investigation.
In essence, the Met’s argument is that having policies and guidance in place is all they need do – even if they never follow them in practice.
Liberty’s intervention argues that the police’s duty to investigate extends beyond an obligation simply to provide proper structures – and that a duty to establish those structures with no legal duty to operate within them would be no more than a mandate to create a bureaucratic fiction.
The Human Rights Act does not allow individuals to take legal action against police over every investigative failing. Courts have repeatedly rejected that idea, accepting that isolated errors will not amount to a breach. This case deals with the duty arising under Article 3 in cases of particularly severe violent crimes, and where serious errors have taken place.
Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, said: “This case hinges on one straightforward but crucial principle. When victims of violent sexual crimes take the brave step of going to the police, they have a right to expect their allegations to be heard and investigated.
“The Met should have learnt lessons and committed to take rape seriously. Instead, they are using taxpayers’ money to drag these two women through yet another court hearing – women they have already let down in the most appalling way. All in an effort to argue that they shouldn’t be legally required to effectively investigate rape.
“Serious questions need to be asked about Theresa May’s shameful decision to intervene on their behalf.
“Her move isn’t just deeply hypocritical given her supposed support for women’s rights and a “shared society”. It also exposes the real rotten motivations behind her government’s plan to repeal the Human Rights Act – limiting ordinary people’s ability to seek truth and justice when the state fails them in the most serious way imaginable.”
A coalition of women’s rights groups – Rape Crisis, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Southall Black Sisters and the Nia Project – are also intervening in the case.