On 21 February 2018, the Supreme Court handed down an historic judgment in a case brought against the Metropolitan Police by two women who had been victims of the serial sex offender and black taxi driver, John Worboys. It was the culmination of a long journey by the two women to hold the police to account for gross failures in the investigation of crimes against them and his many other victims. But the judgment and final outcome of this case has much wider ramifications not just for these two women and the other victims of Worboys, but for all victims of rape, sexual violence and other serious crime.
DSD was one of Worboys’ earlier victims. In 2003, she was a passenger in his black cab returning from a night out with friends. He persuaded her to have a drink with him, which she reluctantly accepted. The next thing she remembered was waking up in hospital the next day to discover she had been raped. She immediately reported the crime to the police but soon felt that they were sceptical about her account and were failing to follow up significant leads including speaking to a key witness who had seen her slumped unconscious in the back of the cab and insisted Worboys take her to a police station. When the police announced they were taking no further action, she told them to keep her clothing as evidence as she was convinced he would do it again.
Four years later in 2007, NBV was also a passenger in Worboys’ taxi and was drugged and sexually assaulted. When she woke the next morning she reported to the police and, on this occasion, Worboys was arrested as a CCTV had captured Worboys’ taxi carrying her, slumped semi-conscious into the college grounds. However, the police were again sceptical that a black taxi driver would risk his licence and failed to conduct basic searches of his home or taxi, and interviewed him almost apologetically. They soon announced they were taking no further action. It was several months after this and following at least 10 women reporting similar attacks by a black taxi driver to the police that someone spotted the pattern of offending and Worboys was apprehended again. This time following publicity and a subsequent trial, 105 similar cases were linked to Worboys.
There have, over the past few decades, been a number of attempts to sue the police in negligence for significant failings in the investigation of serious crime. Notably many of these cases have involved the investigation of crimes of violence against women, such as in the investigation of the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’. Repeatedly, the highest court in the land has ruled that primarily for public policy reasons the police should not be held liable as it might impact on policing priorities and lead to a defensive approach.
The claim by DSD and NBV did not rely on negligence but rather argued that the police have a duty under the Human Rights Act to investigate crimes reaching the threshold of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and inhumane and degrading treatment. The police had argued, with backing from the Home Secretary, that the same public policy reasons as applied in the earlier negligence cases should also apply in this case. However, the five Supreme Court judges unanimously rejected this argument, holding that when police failings are ‘significant and egregious’, this would amount to a violation of the claimants’ human rights.
Following the announcement of the judgment, assistant commissioner Craig Mackay stated that this ruling would have a serious impact on policing and lead to the diversion of resources from other types of crime such as serious fraud. Aside from the offensive comparison and the implication that rape victims were somehow again being blamed for complaining, his warnings are not well founded. In the early 2000s when Worboys was committing most of these crimes, the Metropolitan Police were probably better resourced then they have ever been before or since. They had a ‘gold standard’ rape investigation team ‘Sapphire’ and a set of policies and operational procedures which were clear and well thought through. The failures were not down to resourcing but to bad attitudes and laziness by those on the ground. It can only be hoped that the threat of litigation and further public embarrassment might provide the necessary shot in the arm of police bosses to get their house in order.
Harriet is working with DSD and NBV to challenge to John Worboys’ release. You can find out more about the campaign here.