21 Feb 2018

Today the highest court in the UK has made it clear that human rights law means there is a legal duty on the police to properly investigate serious crimes.

Two women, survivors of rape by John Worboys, won their legal fight to hold the police accountable for breaching their human rights because of failures to properly investigate reports of his crimes. The Supreme Court confirmed that the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, as set out in Article 3 the Human Rights Act, imposes a positive legal duty to investigate reported crimes perpetrated by private individuals. This means it is not enough to simply have the right processes and policies in place, failures in investigations can also breach the law.

This case is extremely important for work to end violence against women. Too often women who have experienced serious violent crimes are failed by authorities, either because they are not believed or their cases dealt with inadequately. Now the courts have confirmed that the human rights law means police action, not just words in guidance, is vital.

The long road to justice

Sadly, this has been a four and half year legal battle for the two survivors who brought the case, DSD and NBV. The lower courts agreed with DSD and NBV’s argument that the police owed them a human rights duty to properly investigate the crimes they had been subjected to. The police have appealed the case at every stage. They have suggested that having relevant policies and guidance is sufficient to fulfil their human rights legal duty, irrespective of what happens in practice. Interestingly, the appeal to the Supreme Court was granted only when the Home Secretary (then Theresa May, followed by Amber Rudd) made submissions to support of police’s application, which subsequently formed the basis of their appeal.

Previously, the High Court made it clear that this case is not about errors in applying guidance but deals with serious failures to act by the police. The human right in question - the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment - specifically deals with serious harm, abuse or neglect. Despite this, the Home Secretary and the police continued to argue that if DSD and NVB won their case this would lead the way for increased legal cases for minor policing errors. The Supreme Court disagreed and made it clear that the Human Rights Act protects the rights of victims.

The future

It is unfortunate that DSD and NVB have had to take their case from the High Court right through to the Supreme Court, each time receiving confirmation of their case that the police do have a duty to positively protect victim’s rights through the proper investigation of reported crimes. No doubt the resources expended in fighting this case could have helped meet the very real need to better protect survivors of sexual violence. Moving forward, this case should empower and embolden our police services to take action to secure victim’s rights.