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Do cautions 'deny victims justice'?

Lauren Smith (left) and Dean Martin
Lauren Smith and Dean Martin both say they were denied justice after their attackers were only cautioned by police

By Shelley Jofre
BBC Panorama

If you commit a crime and get caught it is reasonable to think that you will go to court, be prosecuted and pay the price for your actions.

Not necessarily.

In fact, in England and Wales half of all criminal cases brought to justice these days are punished out of court by way of cautions, warnings and fines.

These direct measures are supposed to be fast and fair.

It is all part of a government drive to cut costs and bureaucracy and to unclog the courts system of minor offences like anti-social behaviour.

Cautions are formal warnings, issued at the discretion of the police if the offender admits his guilt.

However, an investigation by BBC's Panorama has found concern right across the criminal justice system - from defence and prosecution lawyers, to magistrates and even judges - that these out-of-court punishments are increasingly being used for more serious crimes than originally intended.

Our research found cases of burglary, child neglect, sexual assault and even rape which were dealt with by caution in 2008.

Defence lawyer Ian Kelcey said: "When you're talking of cases of rape, assault on children, dwelling house burglaries being dealt with out of court, that is not appropriate.

"That is merely an administrative convenience rather than an offence brought to justice."

Let off lightly

At issue is a lack of scrutiny when decisions such as these are made behind closed doors by the police and prosecutors rather than in open court by magistrates and judges.

People will think 'Oh well, if I punch a girl in the face that's okay, I'm just going to get a caution'
Lauren Smith, victim

Without that scrutiny, we cannot know if there were exceptional circumstances that might explain why such seemingly lenient punishments were handed out for such serious crimes.

It was not difficult to find victims of violent assaults who feel their attackers have been let off lightly.

Last year, Lauren Smith, a 26-year-old flight attendant from Newcastle, was bitten and beaten up by a man she used to be friends with. He received a caution. Lauren was, understandably, furious.

"He's walking around scot-free thinking he's got away with it. People will think 'oh well, if I punch a girl in the face that's okay, I'm just going to get a caution'. It means nothing."

Another assault victim, Dean Martin, 25, was caught in the crossfire of a fight in a Newcastle nightclub.

He had an aftershave bottle smashed in his forehead and needed 25 stitches.

Mr Martin is permanently scarred and suffers regular headaches, blackouts and panic attacks. His attacker - who has since admitted it was an unprovoked assault - also received a caution.

Hate mail

The result, he said, is that people simply don't believe his own account of what happened:

John Guest's injury photos
This man's assailant was initially fined 200 and cautioned

"I was getting hate mail on the internet - the basis of that was what people had read and said… that wasn't true - because he wouldn't have got a caution for what had happened."

Panorama attempted to find out if these are simply isolated examples of mistakes made by the police or evidence of a more general down-grading of crime because of the push for more out-of-court punishments.

Freedom of Information requests were sent to all police forces in England and Wales, asking how often cases of serious violence are punished by caution (cautions aren't used in Scotland).

The results from 39 of the 41 forces revealed that almost 39,000 cases of actual bodily harm (ABH) resulted in a caution last year.

A further 739 cases of the more serious offence of grievous bodily harm also resulted in cautions.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), which represents senior police officers in England and Wales, said the figures are not proof that their forces are going soft on assault.

Acpo said there are good reasons why not all ABH cases are prosecuted and point out that ABH is any assault that results in injury, and not all of those injuries would have been serious.

Strings attached

However, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) takes a different view of ABH.

A different type of out of court punishment - called a conditional caution - were first used in England and Wales in 2006.

It is issued by the CPS, not the police, and is essentially a caution with strings attached.

To avoid prosecution, the offender must agree to apologise to the victim, pay compensation or take part in a treatment programme to tackle their offending behaviour.

John Guest, of Dorset, was badly beaten in his home, but his attacker was given a conditional caution and ordered to pay just £200.

"I felt anger first of all... anger that it had ever happened, anger that it could happen to people who couldn't do anything about it and would just have to sit there and take it," said Mr Guest of his decision to fight back.

He took his case to judicial review. In a landmark decision earlier this year, two senior judges stripped his attacker of the conditional caution.

His attacker has since been convicted of ABH and in court was given a six week suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay £1,000 in compensation.

"At least what I've done can change something I hope for other people who don't get swept under the carpet as I did," Mr Guest said of his battle for justice.

The CPS has, in light of Mr Guest's successful appeal, issued very clear guidelines that anything above the most minor assault - common assault - is too serious to be punished by conditional caution.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer told Panorama that the gradual introduction of different out of court punishments - some of which are administered by the police and others by the CPS - has led to a lack of consistency.

"I accept that what is needed is a coherent system across the board with one overarching scheme."

Panorama: Assault on Justice, BBC One, Monday, 9 November at 2030 GMT.

Cautions 'deny victims justice'
Monday, 9 November 2009, 13:52 GMT |  UK

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