Opinion

My clients were John Worboys’ victims. The bill of rights would undo their victory

The government’s bill of rights, which is due to receive its second reading in parliament on 12 September, has been sold as a mechanism to reduce “risks to the public from convicted criminals”. To support this, Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, has stated that the Human Rights Act, which the bill aims to replace, has led to the failure to deport dangerous foreign prisoners and helped murderers and serial rapists argue that they should be released.

When Raab was challenged in parliament that “it was the Human Rights Act (HRA) that enabled the victims of black-cab rapist John Worboys to challenge the police failure to investigate his appalling crimes”, he answered that “it was not as the result of litigation that addressed the problems with the Worboys case”.

As the solicitor who advised the two victims of Worboys (they were known as DSD and NBV) for almost a decade in the litigation they brought against the police, I can state that Raab’s answer was wrong. The claim against the Metropolitan police commissioner, which was finally decided in the supreme court, established that the police have a duty to effectively investigate crimes such as rape, which reach the threshold of an Article 3 European court of human rights violation.

If Raab was in fact referring to the widely publicised and highly controversial decision by the parole board to release Worboys from prison in 2018, he was also wrong to suggest that this “problem” was not reversed as a result of litigation. My clients also resolved to challenge the parole board decision by way of litigation. Incidentally, that decision to release Worboys had been endorsed by the secretary of state for justice, who became the second defendant in the claim. Their successful judicial review did not rely specifically on the HRA, but would not have succeeded had the claimants not been able to expose the extent of Worboys’s offending, only fully revealed through the police litigation.

My clients are horrified that the proposed bill of rights would unravel their hard-fought victory. NBV told me: “The way I was treated by the police probably had a worse impact on me than the original rape. I brought the case because I did not want any other woman to go through what I did.” DSD said: “I brought the case because I couldn’t live with the idea that this could happen again and again and that women would not be protected from Worboys and other serial rapists. I cannot believe that 10 years of extremely stressful litigation could all have been for nothing.”

The introduction of the bill of rights could not come at a worse time, as we are still reeling from the shocking revelations arising from the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer; of the two Metropolitan police officers who shared selfies posing with the bodies of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry; and from the appalling WhatsApp exchanges between officers stationed at Charing Cross police station.

Those revelations of police-perpetrated abuse, alongside the collapse in prosecutions for rape, domestic violence and other forms of abuse against women and children, have led to a collapse of confidence in the police.

In a letter responding to concerns about the government’s bill, which would curtail the use of “positive obligations” on which DSD and NBV relied in their case against the police, Raab said: “It is important that the police (and public authorities generally) are able to exercise their professional judgment in operational decision-making and the allocation of resources.

“Licensing or promoting litigation against the police and other public services is not an effective means of ensuring accountability, but instead skews public attention, priorities and resources – decisions which should be taken by elected governments and MPs, not the courts.”

So there we have it, a bill of rights that will actually diminish the rights of victims to hold public bodies to account, instead leaving such decisions to government and parliament and deferring to “professional judgment”, relying on organisations such as the police and parole board to do the right thing.

Harriet Wistrich is the founding director of the Centre for Women’s Justice

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