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Rape Convictions Must Improve February 1, 2007

Posted by Winter in rape.
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This won’t be news to feminists, but it’s good to see some acknowledgement of the problem.

Only 5% of reported rapes end in a conviction. The director of public prosecutions says he’s “determined” to improve the way rape cases are handled.

More from the BBC here and here and you can read the full report here.

Facts and figures:

About 80% of rapes never reported
One-third those reported not recorded by police
A fifth of those recorded reaches trial
Half those tried result in conviction

There have been some reforms:

Complainants can give pre-recorded evidence
Definition of consent has changed
Defendant’s bad character can be used
Defendants cannot cross-examine complainants
£7m on new referral centres

But it’s going to take a lot more than that. One member of our group is a lawyer who told us that her lawyer and solicitor friends have agreed that if they were raped (and some of them have been) they would never report it to the Police because they know the system and it’s just “not worth it.”

For some more commentary on the new report see Shouty Lucy and Bookdrunk.

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Comments»

1. Kate - February 2, 2007

The comments on the BBC website (from your second link) are a depressing little sample. Not a single male commenter has anything to say on the victim’s perspective, and most posit the low conviction rate as being due to false accusations. The comments are sharply divided along gender lines. Maybe men (in general) tend to consider rape from the POV of the accused because they might perceive a possibility of being falsely accused happening to them, but not rape. It’s sad that this crime (which does happen to both men and women) seems to be viewed by many as a zero-sum game. If a person is falsely accused of ANY crime, then they will almost always be cleared before or in court. So why is there SUCH a fear of false accusations that actual rape victims must suffer? So much so that efforts to help understand and support victims of crime by the government are seen as attacking men and impinging on their rights? These measures will impinge on the rights of guilty rapists, NOT anyone else, as innocent until proven guilty is still the law. Yes, an accusation of rape will damage a man’s reputation (until, if innocent, he is cleared, when in fact people will feel sympathy) but equally, a woman’s reputation also suffers from REPORTING a rape in certain quarters.
I am in fact in favour of anonymity for both defendent and accused whilst the case is ongoing, as it could be a way to clear away some of this panic about false accusations.

2. Claire - February 3, 2007

I don’t know enough about legal processes to know if what I’m saying is right, but I just wanted to pass on what an American suggested to me.

He says that in the U.S. juries need to be convinced of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. So in rape cases where there is no physical injury and only his word against hers, they’re reluctant.

My friend thinks that they need to make an exception to beyond reasonable doubt just for rape cases.

Instead defendants should prove beyond reasonable doubt that a woman has a genuine motive for inventing an accusation of rape.

I’m not 100% happy with this idea because it puts the victim on trial. Undoubtedly rapists would fabricate all sorts of stories “she was in love with me and upset because I didn’t want to be with her” that male jury members would fall for.

3. Winter - February 3, 2007

Kate,

Maybe men (in general) tend to consider rape from the POV of the accused because they might perceive a possibility of being falsely accused happening to them, but not rape.

Yes, although I’m going to assume that they have a statistically higher chance of being sexually/assaulted raped during their own lives than they do of getting taken to court falsely accused of attacking someone else. Also it really bothers me to see so many men apparently more concerned about their own skins than about the women close to them (wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, sisters) who will be raped by the men currently getting away with it.

Claire,

He says that in the U.S. juries need to be convinced of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. So in rape cases where there is no physical injury and only his word against hers, they’re reluctant.

I think this is a real problem. Juries are reluctant to convict in cases where it’s one person’s word against another’s and this is understandable. My own feeling is that, for this very reason, we need specially trained judges and specialist lawyers to try rape and sexual assault cases. Not only might this improve the situation for victims, but specially trained people might be better at spotting false accusations when they do happen.

4. Anonymous - February 5, 2007

From my experience in court, I think that one thing mentioned in the second BBC report would be effective in prompting an increase in convictions.

“expert witnesses to give evidence to explain the behaviour of complainants”

From sitting through many complaints of rape, I now know that it’s very common not to shout out (even with other people in adjoining rooms) or to fight back, or to call the police straight away. But if I was a juror who was hearing for the first time a description of rape they might well think it was unusual – and the defence barrister would obviously suggest that it was. Having an expert witness could make people realise that the behaviour of the complainant wasn’t out of the ordinary.

I believe that juries want to find people guilty in rape cases and will latch on to any supporting evidence they can find. But when it is one person’s word against another, it’s very hard to be sure. As the defence will tell them – “if you think he probably did it, that’s not enough, not guilty verdict”. I genuinely don’t think many not guilty verdicts come from “she was a slut, asking for it” assumptions, though I guess you’d have to sit with a jury to know for sure.

One of the things that makes me think this is there’s now a very high proportion of convictions in domestic abuse cases, even where the (female) complainant has withdrawn the allegation.

I also think that we need to be wary about too much restrictions on what can be asked in court in order to protect complainants/encourage convictions. Partly because we don’t want to be messing with the presumption of innocence, but partly also because it risks being counter-productive. If the jury thinks that important facts are being held back from them then they may come assumptions on that, or be willing to offer the defendant more benefit of doubt because they think the scales are tipped against them. Similarly, the right for complainants to appear via a video link rather than stand in court facing their assailant is an important one, but I think it also reduces the likelihood of conviction because it dehumanises them – not much perhaps, but enough to tip the balance when it’s one persons word against another.

I agree with kate about anonymity for both sides. Given how much scepticism there is about not guilty verdicts in rape cases (because the standard of proof is so high) I don’t think anyone found not guilty is going to escape with their reputation untarnished. And for all the reasons that it’s so hard to prove lack of consent in rape where the parties know each other, it’s just as hard to disprove it. I don’t believe that the number of false allegations is insignificant (particularly in accusations made by under-16s) and I’ve basically resolved not to have sex with anyone I don’t know partly because of the risk of a false allegation, tiny though that risk might be.

– Josh

5. Winter - February 5, 2007

Similarly, the right for complainants to appear via a video link rather than stand in court facing their assailant is an important one, but I think it also reduces the likelihood of conviction because it dehumanises them – not much perhaps, but enough to tip the balance when it’s one persons word against another.

That’s an interesting and disturbing point, and I suspect you’re right. It’s such a problem though — you have victims who go to court only with the guarantee of giving evidence over video, but the defendant is there in the court with a much more physical presence and able to get his case across to the jury in a more immediate emotional way, while the woman on the video seems distanced from them.

6. Anonymous - February 5, 2007

Exactly. It seems a lot less impressive when someone is crying on a screen in a different room than when it’s happening 10 metres away.

Plus, I’ve heard defence barristers say that they feel able to ask tougher questions because of the distance that they get from speaking to a camera rather than a person.

– Josh


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