Scotland: Victim’s Support Groups welcome 50 recommendations to stem appalling rape conviction rate Print E-mail

 Edinburgh -- Thursday 15 Jun 2006

Legal chief's plan to improve rape case prosecutions

MICHAEL HOWIE  


Elish Angiolini, the Solicitor General, has unveiled measures for a major overhaul in the prosecution of sexual offences. Picture: Cate Gillon


New measures for rape cases to be introduced
400 rapes a year said to go unreported
Police approve of plans as 'valuable'


Key quote
"This has the potential to improve convictions rates, but only in combination with the review of rape laws being carried out by the Scottish Law Commission. Procedural and legislative reform is only going to work if we see a change in societal attitudes."
- Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland

Story in full
RAPE prosecutions in Scotland are to undergo a comprehensive overhaul, under measures unveiled yesterday that will tackle the country's appalling conviction rate for sexual crimes.

Revealing the findings of an 18-month review, Elish Angiolini, the Solicitor General, promised "a profoundly new approach" to the way rape cases are investigated. She admitted that a softly-softly approach to victims pre-trial had led to cases collapsing and contributed to just 4 per cent of reported rates ending in a conviction.

Fifty recommendations are contained in a 200-page report into the prosecution of sexual offences. They cover every aspect of the prosecution process, from the way police investigate allegations of rape to how evidence is led from victims in court. The report has received a broad welcome from rape victim support organisations.

Among the key measures is a new "case building" approach, which will encourage police to use evidence about similar crimes committed by the accused to help corroborate a victim's account.

And procurators-fiscal will adopt a "forensic" approach to interviewing victims so that any potential difficulties can be identified before going to court. This might involve inquiring into victims' sexual history. The aim is to compile more robust cases, containing fewer weaknesses that could be exploited by defence lawyers, so that more rapists will be convicted.

Announcing the measures to the Scottish Parliament, the Solicitor General said:

"The interviewing process, known as precognition, has at times not been sufficiently robust in exploring with the victim any weaknesses and contradictions." This stemmed, "with the best intentions", from a wish to make the victim feel believed and comfortable with the process.

"But this may have in fact inhibited and undermined investigations, with the result that opportunities to address evidential weaknesses are lost and the presentation of the case compromised," said Ms Angiolini.

The report also pledges comprehensive new training for Crown officers involved in handling rape cases.

A new, "no realistic prospect of conviction" test will be used by prosecutors to drop at an early stage cases that appear destined to fail because of a lack of corroboration. The review suggests this will protect victims from having to go through the distress of a court appearance when there is no hope of a successful prosecution.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has also promised to explore using expert witnesses in court, such as psychologists who can explain to juries the emotional reactions of rape victims.

And Ms Angiolini said male rape and acts of sodomy against children will always now be prosecuted in the High Court, in an attempt to encourage more victims to come forward.

She said: "It is estimated that 400 male rapes go unreported each year, with only 14 reported to police."

The review was launched in 2004 amid growing concern that Scotland has one of the lowest conviction rates for rape in the world.

Some 900 alleged rapes were reported to police in 2004-5, but there were only 39 convictions.

It is estimated that as many as 4,000 attacks go unreported each year in Scotland. The review found that of the rape cases that go to court, only 26 per cent lead to a conviction.

But Sandy Brindley, of Rape Crisis Scotland, said only a shift in public attitude towards rape would make a significant difference to the number of women who are prepared to go to court and the number of rapists who are convicted.

Recent surveys have found that many people still hold women who are raped at least partly responsible. She said of the proposals: "This has the potential to improve convictions rates, but only in combination with the review of rape laws being carried out by the Scottish Law Commission. Procedural and legislative reform is only going to work if we see a change in societal attitudes."

Police last night said the recommendations made a "valuable contribution" to the prosecution of rape and other serious sexual offences.


How we can improve the way we prosecute sexual offences

THE recommendations we have published on the prosecution of sexual offences are comprehensive but not a panacea to the problems of rape conviction levels.

However, this is the biggest study there has ever been in Scotland into the range of issues concerning sexual offences from a prosecution perspective. We felt it was time to examine closely what we are doing, how can we improve what we are doing and identify the challenges we face.

There are so many complex variables. We have highlighted those areas such as the framework of the law, in particular the unique requirement for corroboration in Scots law and the very narrow definition of rape that we have to work within.

Repeatedly, the assertion is made that we have the lowest conviction rate for rape in the world. Is it the case that we are a social backwater in relation to rest of the world? The reality is, of course, very different.

What we do have is possibly the narrowest definition of rape of any of the jurisdictions we studied. The requirement for corroboration and on the issue of consent mean it is difficult to prove a crime has been committed.

One of the hurdles we face is when there is enough evidence to prove attempted rape but not penetration, the victim is asked to give her evidence in such a way as to not mention the penetration. It's an utterly artificial situation where the victim's evidence lacks spontaneity. They take an oath to tell the truth but the last thing they can do is tell the truth. So one recommendation is that we will now, in the case of an attempted rape charge, give notice to the defence saying we intend to seek a conviction for attempted rape - but that the evidence of the full crime will be led.

We have to create an environment in the prosecution process where victims feel comfortable about being absolutely frank in their description of what happened. If they did have a kiss and a cuddle in the kitchen or engaged in foreplay, they should feel they are able to tell us. Because, if they aren't, the case is going to be very substantially weakened. Our job is to present cases so juries can make the best decision.


Rape victim's suicide exposes the faults in 'crazy' prosecution system, says mother

THE mother of a teenager who committed suicide after being raped said last night prosecutors faced a massive battle to gain the confidence of victims.

Lindsay Armstrong, 17, took an overdose of anti-depressants shortly after the man who raped her was convicted.

During the trial in 2002 she had been forced to hold up the underwear she was wearing at the time of the attack.

Her mother, Linda, of New Cumnock in Ayrshire, said her daughter frequently broke down as her day in court loomed.

"She needed a lot of support and was always crying. Lindsay was dreading going to court but didn't want to see him getting off with it," she said.

Mrs Armstrong described the 4 per cent conviction rate as "appalling".

She said: "It's so low because a lot of women don't want to go through with taking their case to court. They are afraid because it is so difficult to face your accuser in court. Having to tell anyone about what happened to them can be so hard, even to someone you know.

"Having to tell it to a prosecutor, a jury and, ultimately, the perpetrator is incredibly difficult."

She said the law should be changed to make it easier for juries to convict in rape cases.

"The jury is told they can only convict if they are beyond any reasonable doubt. Even if they are one per cent unsure they cannot find someone guilty. That's crazy."

She added: "I think the way these cases are being handled is improving slowly but you cannot just say something will be done and that's it.

"It takes time but I think, hopefully, we will get there eventually.

"I think there should be specialist rape courts set up, with, possibly, specially selected juries.

"You might find some ordinary members of a jury are themselves rapists who simply haven't been caught."


Proposed changes in pursuit of justice

• Victims will be warned before they go to court when defence lawyers intend to raise sexual history in cross-examination.

Prosecution staff will be trained on the true nature of what rape is, as well as common myths and stereotypes.

• The Crown Office will issue annual statistics on rape case conviction rates.

A guidance manual on rape and other serious sexual offences will be produced for Crown Office staff.

• The crime of sodomy against men and equivalent assaults against women and children will always be prosecuted in the High Court, where life sentences can be imposed.

Revised procedures will mean police will not report allegations of rape to the procurator fiscal where there is a "patent insufficiency of evidence".

• Each local procurator-fiscal should provide a point of contact to police to give immediate advice and direction on relevant legal matters.

Prosecutors must oppose bail in all cases of rape and serious sexual offences in the first instance.

• Inconsistencies in evidence must be identified and explored when victims give precognition statements.

A working group will be formed to examine the merits of using expert witnesses in rape cases.