Victims of Trafficking: How are they treated in the courts?

Human trafficking is illegal in 156 countries, and yet prosecution rates are low in the UK and around the world. Part of the problem is that the law focuses on the victims, treating them as criminals rather than digging down into why they are involved in criminal behaviour. 

Last week a couple of the STOP THE TRAFFIK team went to the British Library in London for a human trafficking conference organised by the European Migration Network. The talk that interested me the most was from three lawyers: Pam Bowen of the Crown Prosecution Service, and barristers Peter Carter and Parosha Chandran.

The talks focused on a troubling phenomenon: that too often in the UK, the traffickers get away without prosecution, while the victims suffer at the hands of the law. This is also the subject of a new report from the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, which can be found here.

There are so many statistics and examples to demonstrate the holes in the legal system, and in the knowledge of police forces across the country, that it’s hard to know where to start. The most startling is that while 805 potential victims of trafficking were identified in 2011, only 39 people were prosecuted for trafficking in the same year. This discrepancy is unacceptable, and shows that the focus of law enforcement is all wrong.

In the talk, Parosha took us through the most important example is the case of R v N and R v L from 2012. This involved two Vietnamese defendants who were caught on cannabis farms and consequently accused of production, and convicted to 20 and 18 months’ detention. As anyone who has used our tool SPOT THE TRAFFIK will know, in such cases we must consider the possibility that they are working there against their will.

During the case, in which the defendants were represented by Peter and Parosha, the UK Border Agency thought that L might have been trafficked, which means that he would fall under some protection given to trafficking victims. This allowed them to appeal against his conviction, in order to reduce the sentence.

However, during the appeal, Parosha told us, it was decided that he had not been exploited ‘enough’. He was provided with weekly groceries, and had been given a mobile phone and some money. The sentence was reduced, but only by 8 months.

So on the one hand this is disappointing, but in many ways this was a landmark case. It is the first time that a court has taken into account the fact the defendant might have been a victim of trafficking. Because of the way the law works in the UK (we have a system called “common law” – see, I’ve been reading up on law stuff!), all future cases dealing with similar issues will refer back to this one for a judgment.

Now that a judge has accepted the importance of taking trafficking into account, this gives trafficking victims who are put through the courts the opportunity to be given fair treatment. For this truly matter though, there is more that must be done.

Firstly, we are asking people in the legal profession the same as we are asking you in the community – be aware that trafficking happens, and what the signs are. There are so many opportunities during the conviction process for someone to flag up that the defendant might be a victim of trafficking, so there’s no excuse not to.

Secondly, trafficking awareness must be an integral part of training for police and lawyers, so that anyone who is in a position to help victims of trafficking from being prosecuted can do so. We have worked with several police units across the country, but awareness must be more widespread. The Home Office is moving ahead with plans to do this, and we will support them in their fight to eradicate human trafficking from the UK.

2 thoughts on “Victims of Trafficking: How are they treated in the courts?

  1. The report, seen by The Independent, comes at a time when the number of trafficking victims identified is soaring and criminal convictions for the offence have plummeted. It is published by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), a coalition of organisations established to scrutinise the government’s progress in tackling modern slavery.

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