Domestic abuse victim, convicted for naming her alleged abuser, acquitted on appeal
In November 2022, Rochelle Bakhtiari, a student, was convicted before Wimbledon Magistrates Court for harassment against her former partner by naming him on social media as having subjected her to domestic abuse both during and after their relationship.
Prior to the prosecution against her, Ms Bakhtiari had previously reported the complainant to the police five times for abusive behaviour including coercive control, threat of physical violence, and persistent unwanted contact via multiple platforms over the course of several years. She had also reported him to authorities within the Brazilian jiu-jitsu community, where they had met and where he continued to teach and operate as a senior figure; and to a professional regulator. Following serious failures to investigate both by police and by the various BJJ bodies, and in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder by a man in a position of power, Ms Bakhtiari felt compelled to speak out about her experience for the benefit of other women in the BJJ community.
Thereafter, Ms Bakhtiari was reported by him to police for her online posts and threatened by her alleged abuser with civil proceedings (which did not materialise).
Following flawed police investigations which failed to recognise the context of Ms Bakhtiari’s previous police reports and the domestic abuse she alleged, she was charged and tried before Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court. She was prosecuted on the basis that – whilst her account of his domestic abuse was not challenged, and unwanted contact post-relationship was accepted - her posts identifying her abuser nevertheless amounted to harassment because they were said to contain some minor technical or semantic inaccuracies, and because they had led to the complainant receiving unwelcome messages from other members of the public (albeit not at Ms Bakhtiari’s request or invitation).
At various times in the civil litigation pre-action correspondence and during the criminal investigation and proceedings (and in comments made online), Ms Bakhtiari’s mental health and stability were called into question, unsupported by any evidence.
Ms Bakhtiari appealed to the Crown Court. She maintained her belief in the truth of her posts, and argued that her conduct in naming her abuser, could not reasonably amount to harassment and was also undertaken in good faith in order to prevent harm to others (including other young women in the BJJ community).
During the appeal proceedings an application to stay proceeding was submitted on Ms Bakhtiari’s behalf arguing that the prosecution against her amounted to an abuse of process because it was infected by clear and manifest failures adequately to investigate the domestic abuse she had experienced at the hands of the complainant. In those circumstances, it was argued that the prosecution had been pursued in breach of:
CPS policy in relation to domestic violence and prosecution of alleged victims;
the state’s obligations towards victims of gender-based violence (including domestic violence) under Article 3 ECHR – which include a duty to investigate allegations of gender-based violence;
Ms Bakhtiari’s rights under the ECHR to freedom of speech, and in particular her right to speak about her experience of gender-based violence.
It was argued that similar protections should be afforded to potential victims of article 3 mistreatment, as those which are applied in the context of victims of human trafficking (under Article 4 ECHR). As such, victims of domestic violence should not be prosecuted for conduct potentially relating to or arising from their mistreatment in the absence of adequate investigation into their abuse. In the absence of such an investigation, any decision to prosecute would not comply with relevant policies or with the Crown’s operational duties under Article 3 which exist both to protect victims from further harm, and to facilitate their recovery.
Following receipt of the defence’s abuse of process application the Crown Prosecution Service indicated that the case would no-longer be pursued and that they would offer no evidence on the basis that there was “no realistic prospect of conviction”. No evidence was offered on 5th October at Kingston Crown Court and Ms Bakhtiari’s wrongful conviction was quashed. The CPS have thereby recognised that the prosecution against Ms Bakhtiari was flawed and should not have been brought.
This outcome is a welcome one, both for Ms Bakhtiari who has been caused significant hardship as a result of these proceedings, and for victims of domestic abuse whose right to speak publicly about their experiences should be respected and protected.