Caroline Flack: CPS and the public interest

February 25, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Following widespread criticism over its decision to pursue an assault charge against television presenter Caroline Flack after she allegedly attacked her boyfriend Lewis Burton, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has explained how it decides whether to prosecute alleged domestic abusers.

What does this mean?

On 23 December 2019, Flack entered a not guilty plea at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court. She was released on bail and due to face trial next month. However, she was found dead in her East London flat on 15 February after taking her own life. The CPS was heavily criticised over its decision to prosecute her, particularly as the alleged victim had withdrawn his complaint and did not support the prosecution. The criticism prompted the CPS to disclose how it makes prosecution decisions. A spokesman explained that the following two-stage test is applied: 

(1) Does the evidence provide a realistic prospect of conviction? 

(2) Is it in the public interest to prosecute? 

He added that a prosecution can go ahead without the support of the alleged victim if there is sufficient evidence that the crime took place.

What's the big picture effect?

This story raises an important debate about whether the CPS should prosecute alleged domestic abusers when the alleged victim does not support the prosecution. 

Clearly, these “unwanted” prosecutions can have significant and unintended effects on those involved. For example, the anonymous author of this article in The Telegraph discusses how she was charged with common assault after giving her boyfriend “a shove” during a drunken row, despite his requests for the charge to be dropped. The case was discontinued three days before trial, but undergoing criminal proceedings for a domestic row that went too far had a devastating impact on her mental health.

Nazir Afzal, a former Chief Crown Prosecutor,  explains the public interest rationale behind “victimless” or “evidence-based” prosecutions: “Sometimes you need to protect someone even when they can’t see it themselves”. Many victims of domestic violence cases do not report them, and many that do are unwilling to support prosecutions against their abusers. There are many possible reasons for this. They may feel too afraid, ashamed, stigmatised or isolated. They may fear that they will not be believed. They may even want to protect their abuser from the consequences of their actions. If the prosecution of an alleged domestic abuser relied on the alleged victim’s support, abusers would be incentivised to threaten or manipulate victims to silence them and avoid prosecution. This would allow abuse to continue and escalate. In order to adequately protect victims, the CPS must have the power to prosecute alleged domestic abusers even if the alleged victim does not give their support. Any other approach would potentially put many more lives at risk.

However, the justifications behind the CPS policies make the death of Caroline Flack no less tragic. The intense media scrutiny that she faced must now surely be questioned, as well as the way the media handles celebrity cases in general. Although there is a right for the public to know of cases that have sufficient public interest, there has to be a better way of approaching these situations.

Report written by Isobel Deane

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