Modern slavery is a particularly complex and challenging crime type to investigate. The complexity of cases, the variety of crime, the multi-national and multi-ethnic background of participants, the multiple occurrences of abuse, the different forms of deception and coercion used to control victims and the way offences are interwoven with other forms of criminality sets modern slavery apart. And most importantly, the trauma suffered by vulnerable victims often over extended periods of time, modern slavery has a devastating ad corrosive effect of the lives of individuals and on society as a whole.

In response, specialist training is now also available to law enforcement practitioners and prosecutors on how to tackle modern slavery cases. Investigators and prosecutors are now increasingly working together to plan strategies and activity at the early stages of an investigation.

Caroline Haughey QC, a leading barrister and a specialist in modern slavery prosecutions agrees that modern slavery is significantly different from more conventional crime. She led the prosecution of the first modern slavery case in the UK and appeared in the BBC2 programme “The Prosecutors” which featured the first successful prosecution of a modern slavery case involving child labour.

Her description of the challenges for policing and law enforcement are summarised here:

The offences:

  • Modern slavery involves exploitation where human beings are treated as commodities. It deprives victims of their liberty, free will and freedom of choice. There are over 40 million victims of MSHT globally with potentially tens of thousands of victims in the UK.
  • Cases are not immediately visible. Unlike murder, fraud or theft, there is no dead body or no reported loss to investigate.
  • Crimes are rarely based in one locality and often involve the trafficking of individuals both nationally and internationally.
  • Cases almost always involve multiple offences, multiple forms of abuse and multiple defendants. They can potentially involve tens or even hundreds of victims.
  • Cases can often initially manifest themselves as other crime types such as identity fraud, benefit fraud, petty theft, over-crowding or antisocial behaviour

The offenders:

  • Offenders do not consider victims as human beings seeing them instead as property. Victims may be bought and sold in exchange for other items.
  • It is possible that offenders may not consider that what they are doing is wrong. They may argue they are supporting their victims.
  • Offenders establish controlling relationships with victims who may come to rely on their captors. Offenders may seek multiple ways to extract maximum value from victims through sexual abuse, benefit and identity fraud, labour exploitation and/or or servitude.
  • Offenders rarely act alone often working with associates or other members of a crime group. Separate groups may collaborate to exploit similar forms of offending.
  • Individuals may have specific or defined roles within crime groups. It is possible that these individuals may not be aware of the total picture of exploitative offending.

The victims:

  • Unlike other crime, victims are unlikely to come forward to report MSHT crime and are often unwilling to participate in prosecutions. Fear for self or family, shame or personal embarrassment are all reasons why victims often do not identify themselves and are unable to escape exploitation.
  • Victims are often the subject of various and multiple abuse. It is rare that a modern slavery case relates to a single offence.
  • Victims will always have been lied to; misled and once recruited, will be subject to control or coercion. They are often isolated and feel unable to break out of the exploitative situation. They may feel dependent on their captors.
  • Victims may accept their experience as being inevitable given the limited alternative choices available to them. They may even not understand that what is happening to them is wrong.
  • Victims can often feel uncomfortable working with the police

The challenges for investigators and prosecutors:

  • Cases are complex and must be treated as serious and organised crime.
  • The limited contribution that victims are able to make to investigations makes it more difficult to identify and evidence modern slavery.
  • The nature and complexity of cases places significant demands on officers. Every skillset available to the police is required to investigate these cases – including specialist investigation.
  • Investigations are challenging and require detailed planning and analysis. Extensive collaboration with the CPS, other forces, agencies and partners is often needed.
  • Investigations may have an international dimension requiring collaboration with overseas law enforcement partners.
  • Case building requires the collection, interpretation and collation of multiple sources of evidence. Successful prosecution requires exhaustive and detailed case preparation.
  • Cases take longer to prosecute than conventional crime due to their complexity.
  • Working with and supporting victims throughout the life of their case can be challenging and requires constant focus.
  • Detailed investigation and a concerted effort on victim management and support are required in order to achieve successful convictions.

Adapted from an article in the Modern Slavery Police Transformation newsletter summer 2018

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About Us


This is the website of the modern slavery police transformation programme.  We work to support police officers, police staff and law enforcement partners to lead the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. 

Our aim is to help to deliver a consistent response to protecting victims and targeting offenders - and to work with partners to ultimately help prevent exploitation from having a place in our society.

Contact Us


You can contact the Modern Slavery Police Transformation programme by email at Modern Slavery

Alternatively colleagues in UK law enforcement can visit the modern slavery community on POLKA.

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