Activism

Women's groups threaten Priti Patel with legal action over 'inadequate' Sarah Everard inquiry

Women's groups are threatening to take the Home Secretary to court if she does not give the inquiry wider powers.

Priti Patel has been threatened with High Court action if she does not give the inquiry wider powers. Image: Policy Exchange/flickr

The government has been threatened with legal action over its “inadequate” inquiry into police violence and the murder of Sarah Everard.

Lawyers for the Centre for Women’s Justice, along with 21 other women’s organisations, have written to Priti Patel asking her to give more powers to the inquiry, which was announced at the start of October and will examine the “systematic failures” that let Wayne Couzens continue to serve as a police officer despite allegations against him.

But campaigners fear the planned review is too narrow and will not truly address systemic issues unless it is given statutory powers.

Debaleena Dasgupta, the solicitor for CWJ leading the case, told The Big Issue: “There are real fears that without the powers a statutory inquiry would have any findings will come late, will be inadequate, and ultimately will not fix the systemic issues and allay public concerns.”

If the group does not receive a reply by its deadline of 4pm on November 22, it will issue proceedings to begin a judicial review.

The inquiry will first look into Wayne Couzens, and then into any systemic issues raised by that first part.

Dasgupta argues that doing so would inhibit the inquiry’s ability to tackle the wider issues, especially in light of recent cases involving officers other than Wayne Couzens.

Two police officers last week admitted to taking and sharing photos of the bodies of murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Another serving Met officer, Francis Olwage, has been charged with attempting to groom a 13-year-old girl for sex. Olwage denies the charges.

A statutory inquiry has the power to call witnesses and has more independence from the government than a non-statutory inquiry. The government says a non-statutory inquiry is quicker to set up.

But MPs in Patel’s party have warned that the non-statutory status will hamper the inquiry.

Sir Bob Neill, who chairs the Commons Justice Committee, said witnesses would be able to mislead the inquiry without risking charges if it did not have statutory powers.

“Although I can see the arguments for speed in a non-statutory inquiry, the ability to compel reluctant witnesses, particularly if they are perhaps serving or former colleagues of Couzens who might otherwise wish to cover things up, that would be a strong argument for a statutory inquiry to make sure those people are put on the spot and find out what they did or did not know,” he told the Standard.

Conservative MP Caroline Nokes said the inquiry becoming a statutory one would give it the power to compel witnesses. “This tragic killing has exposed weaknesses and misogynistic attitudes that have to be rooted out, and I want to see real determination,” Nokes, who chairs the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, said.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper said there were “real concerns that given the nature of this inquiry it will face delays and obstacles if it does not have statutory powers to get to the truth”

The CWJ wrote to Priti in October but didn’t get a response, and so on Monday sent a pre-action protocol letter, which is the first stage of judicial review proceedings.

Dasgupta told The Big Issue: “Centre For Women’s Justice really hoped to avoid litigation, which is why we originally wrote informally to the Home Secretary on October 15, pointing out that what she said she wants to achieve from an inquiry, cannot be achieved by the proposals she later published.

“We asked her to take steps to conduct the inquiry in a way that would fully investigate the issues and restore public confidence in policing. We do not take litigation lightly, so it was only after her complete failure to engage with the points we raised that we wrote to begin legal proceedings.

“We have now sent a letter before claim, setting out why her current position is wrong in law and have asked her again to take steps to ensure the inquiry is properly conducted, including setting it on a statutory footing. It is unclear why she has chosen not to do so, particularly when other inquiries have shown how a failure to do so can slow the process down. There are real fears that without the powers a statutory inquiry would have any findings will come late, will be inadequate, and ultimately will not fix the systemic issues and allay public concerns.

“Since our original letter was sent, 21 other expert and experienced organisations working against violence against women and girls supporting our requests.

“We are speaking up on behalf of victims of police perpetrated violence and abuse. The Home Secretary needs to recognise what is being sought is correct and fair and take immediate action.”

The Home Office is expected to reply before the 14 day deadline. A spokesperson for the Home Office told The Big Issue: “It is abhorrent that a serving police officer was able to abuse his position of power, authority and trust to commit such a horrific crime.

“The public have a right to know how this happened, which is why the inquiry will establish this first, before looking across policing more broadly to ensure something like this can never happen again. Further detail will be set out in due course.”

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