In a court in Knightsbridge last week two women were subjected to a frightening and degrading cross-examination by the man who had raped them. Over the course of five days, he took them back over every detail of the night of the attack. On the first day of his questioning he was so aggressive that the judge, Timothy Pontius, temporarily halted the trial. Between questions, the man repeatedly paused, sometimes for as long as 10 minutes, as each of the women sat waiting for the renewed onslaught of abusive interrogation. Jurors, many of whom have since spoken out about the trial, wept openly in court, powerless to end the witnesses' ordeal. As if to add insult to injury, the 44-year-old man remains anonymous for legal reasons.

This was not supposed to happen again. Last year Julia Mason gave up her right to anonymity following a gruelling six-day interrogation in the witness box by the man who raped her, in an attempt to ensure that it didn't. On Thursday, Jack Straw finally confirmed that the Government was willing to act. Any change in the law raises serious civil liberties questions because we have come to accept the right of accused men and women to defend themselves. But clearly, rape victims also have the right not to be humiliated in the dock, and for this reason the Home Secretary's announcement that the law concerning rape defendants is to be examined is laudable.

But, as is beginning to seem all too familiar with an administration adept at swimming with the tide of public opinion, this is just another sticking-plaster remedy for a situation which desperately requires more radical revision.

Rape victims in this country are betrayed every day by the legal system and most, regardless of their cross-examiner - whether trained barrister or untrained psychopath - will say they feel violated again by the end of their trial.

When rape victims enter the witness box they are inevitably subjected by the defence to a barrage of real or implied criticism over their personal life. The alleged sex attack itself is usually gone into in terrible detail. Most appallingly, although the alleged rapist's previous convictions are, rightly, not allowed to be brought into the equation, the sexual histories of their victims are fair game.

The time they wore just their underwear to a fancy dress party, the number of sexual partners they have had or the drink they had consumed that night are all under the scrutiny of the court. The victim might even have initially encouraged the attentions of their rapist, and if proved, the likelihood of a conviction is already slipping away. In a crime where it is usually one person's word against another's, it is the victims' sexual histories which all too often end up on trial. It is this injustice, above all, which needs to be ended.

Moreover, their chances of having their rapist convicted are slim. According to statistics compiled by the charity Women Against Rape, one in five recorded rapes makes it to court. Fewer than one in 10 recorded rapes - and a high percentage are not even recorded by police - results in a conviction. In effect, the system calls 90 per cent of women who say they have been raped liars. It is no wonder so many opt to tell nobody - least of all a court - of their ordeal.

Yet discussion on reforming rape law usually revolves around the alleged rapist in the court room - his right to defend himself, whether he should be allowed anonymity. The Government has allowed itself to fall exactly into this trap, more comfortable with tinkering with a tiny aspect of a huge injustice rather than with overhauling the entire system of which that detail is a part.

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