A cruel spectator sport that women dread

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Ralston Edwards first found this loophole in the law in 1988, when he was accused of an eight-hour-long violent attack on his then partner. Interrogating her gave him his first taste of intimidating his victims across the court room.

Rape victims make notoriously bad witnesses. Canny defence barristers know well that they can be made to quake and quail under intense questioning. They can be made confused and distressed by having to describe in an open court room disgusting things that have happened to them. They can find that they have to defend themselves.

All this may make them trip up, contradict themselves or sound like unreliable witnesses. Imagine how much worse it must be for the victim to be interrogated for six days by the rapist himself, squeezing a last sadistic thrill out of reducing her to wreckage.

The intimidatory tactics of some defence lawyers are thought to be responsible for the shrinking proportion of rape cases that secure a conviction. Although many more women do come forward to report rape now that the police have a gentler reputation in dealing with the crime, many victims are still thought to hide in fear and shame. Ralston Edwards will have struck a clever blow for rapists if women reading about this horrible trial shrink from reporting rape for fear of such an ordeal.

How can rape victims be better protected from such browbeating in future? Some suggest that rape defendants should not have the right to defend themselves in court, but this would breach a most fundamental right. Others urge more modestly that women confronted by their attackers should be allowed to give evidence by video from another room, with questions put to them through an intermediary, as children can in sex-abuse cases. But some lawyers say this would deny justice, since the jury have nothing to go on but their own assessment of the veracity of the accuser, and they need to see and sense the quality of their character. However, concern expressed yesterday suggests that judges should be able to order some extra protection for women.

The wider question of why so many rape cases fail needs examination. Getting the balance right is precariously difficult. In this case, justice was done - but terrible damage was done to the victim. Changing the law on the back of a sensational case is nearly always a mistake. None the less, there is an urgent need for a review of a system that allowed this grotesque scene at the Old Bailey.