The first an individual is likely to know of the allegations is when he (or she) answers the door to an officer who either proceeds to arrest on suspicion of sexual assault or in some instances to arrange for the accused to attend as a volunteer at the police station at a future date. Often the individual will be a person who has no previous dealings with the police. Which ever route is taken the accused person will undoubtedly feel afraid, vulnerable and disbelieving.
Questions he will wish to ask are likely to remain unanswered by the police officer at this juncture, such as who has made such an allegation and what is the allegation. Officers will not provide details in advance of the formal interview and so the accused is left wondering.
It is imperative in these types of cases and indeed in any case where there is to be a police interview, that the accused requests the services of a solicitor. Too many times you hear a client say, “I didn’t ask for a solicitor at the police station because I haven’t done anything wrong!”. Why should you ask for a solicitor? Firstly the police are obliged to provide us with disclosure; this does not mean they have to disclose everything they know about the case but they are obliged to provide sufficient detail to enable the solicitor to give proper advice as to how the interview should proceed. Then the solicitor will be able to assess the strength or weakness of the case and to advise as to whether or not the accused should answer the questions or to make no comment as is his right; a right that he will be reminded of when cautioned at the commencement of the interview.
The solicitor will take an active role during the course of the interview. For those who have watched TV shows in which an interview is played out, a real interview is nothing like that. Unlike on the TV, solicitors have a speaking role and are there to ensure that the officers behave appropriately and to challenge any inappropriate questioning. Having a solicitor present ensures a balance so that the accused does not feel intimidated or under pressure.
The type of questions can be distressing due to the nature of the allegations and difficult to comprehend when made by (often) a family member. The passage of time affects everyone’s memory and these types of cases often involve allegations dating back many years. The individual may feel compelled to provide some form of answer and once again the role of the solicitor is to ensure the client answers appropriately. Officers will sometimes pass comment or express an opinion; this is inappropriate in the interview setting and should be challenged.
At the conclusion of the interview a decision in relation to charge will be made. This almost always involves the file being passed to the Crown Prosecution Service and the individual is told to return at a later date. This intervening period of time can have its own difficulties as in certain circumstances bail conditions can be imposed which prevent the person from returning home; it can mean that social services will become involved with the family and simple things such as collecting children from school become an issue. These are issues which again a solicitor can assist with by making representations to either the custody sergeant or in certain circumstances by an application to the court.
Whatever the ultimate outcome is at the earliest possible opportunity the accused should seek independent legal advice. Advice at the police station remains free if the sexual offence solicitor instructed holds a General Crime Contract and so the accused should not feel that “can not afford to be represented”.