19 July 2014
Last updated at 05:00
At least 146 suspects have been charged with offences after previously being told that they would not be prosecuted, BBC News has learned.
The decisions were reversed under a new Victims’ Right of Review scheme which allows crime victims to appeal.
It is one of a series of measures to improve the way the justice system in England and Wales treats victims.
Among the successful victims’ appeals were 80 cases of violence and 27 involving alleged sexual offences.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said the scheme gave victims the power to challenge and hold prosecutors to account.
But one expert said it wasn’t independent enough because it involved CPS lawyers.
Hold to account
Under the system, victims can appeal against a decision not to bring charges or to discontinue a case once a prosecution has begun.
The first appeal is heard by a managing lawyer from the area where the original decision was made.
If the victim is still not satisfied the CPS Appeals and Review Unit, based in London, or a senior prosecutor elsewhere will review the case again.
Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders praised the scheme
Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders said: “It is hard to think of a scheme that gives more power to victims than the Victims’ Right to Review. Having the right to challenge our work and hold us to account is fundamental to instilling greater confidence among victims.”
Between June 2013 – when the scheme started – and this March, 1,186 appeals were lodged, of which 162 were upheld, a success rate of 13.7 percent.
Sixteen of the successful appeals involved cases where charges had been brought and then dropped, so a prosecution could not be re-started.
In the remaining cases, at least 146 suspects were charged with offences for which they had initially escaped prosecution.
In two cases, in which charges were brought, the victims had died.
One followed an alleged “road rage” incident, the other involved a pedestrian who was hit by a car while crossing a road.
However, the proportion of decisions that were quashed was a tiny fraction of the total number of cases over the nine-month period.
The CPS made 113,952 decisions that could have been reviewed; less than 0.14% were overturned.
Mrs Saunders denied that this suggested that the system wasn’t robust enough.
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The right to review is a crucial and an essential tool for those who want to challenge a court decision and hold the CPS to account”
“This should be seen as a sign of confidence in our decision making and also our ability to act swiftly where mistakes may have been made,” she said.
But Nicole Westmarland, Professor of Criminology at Durham University, said: “What we essentially have is a panel of colleagues reviewing the decision of somebody who they may be personally friends with.”
Professor Westmarland, an adviser to the Association of Chief Police Officers and Rape Crisis, said third sector organisations should be involved in the appeals process.
“I think the more that you can bring external assessment into these processes the better,” she added.
Adam Pemberton, assistant chief executive of Victim Support welcomed the scheme but said it was too limited.
“We’d like to see this right to review extended so that victims can challenge a decision by the CPS to charge a suspect with a lesser offence and to challenge a decision by a police officer to use an out of court disposal, such as a caution, instead of sending a file to the CPS to consider a charge,” he said.
The CPS has also set up dedicated units to liaise with victims of crime, following criticism that victims didn’t get enough information on the progress of their case, sometimes had to wait too long to be contacted and weren’t always dealt with appropriately.
More than 70 Victim Liaison Officers will staff units across England and Wales, with around 80 completing training in handling the specific needs of victims of crime.
One of those whose case faced delays, “Kate” – who did not appeal as part of the right to review scheme – said the wait was “constantly overshadowing” her life.
One victim’s story
Kate – not her real name – says she was given barely any information about the progress of her case after she reported an allegation of rape to police.
When a file was sent to the CPS for a charging decision, she was told there would be a delay because of a backlog of cases. She wanted to know what to expect if the case came to court, but never got the answers.
It made her feel like a “criminal”, as if she was the one in the wrong.
Charges were eventually brought – but her trial was adjourned twice, without, Kate says, proper explanation. It finally got under way more than a year after the incident.
“To have that constantly overshadowing your life is something big, that you can’t push past,” she says.
Kate says the only people who really helped her, providing information and support, were volunteers, from the Witness Service, which is run by the charity Victim Support.
The Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, welcomed the measures but said she would be “looking very closely” at the Victims’ Right to Review scheme to ensure that it was being properly implemented.
“The right to review is a crucial and an essential tool for those who want to challenge a court decision and hold the CPS to account – which is why it is so important to get it right,” she said.