Rape victims to be spared the shame of telling their sexual history

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The Independent Online
Rape victims who fear having their sexual past paraded in court could be protected by changes being considered by ministers. That should help to raise the numbers of rapists convicted, which have plummeted.

The number of women reporting rapes by their husbands or partners has doubled in four years, according to the latest research by Home Office officials.

Just 8 per cent of reported rapes are now committed by strangers, while half take place within marriage or other intimate relationships.

But while the number of offences recorded rose from 1,842 in 1985 to 5,759 in 1996, convictions fell from 24 per cent to 10 per cent. Worse, only about three-quarters were even recorded.

Police regularly broke Home Office guidelines which said that a case could only be discarded as "no crime" if a woman's allegation proved false. But that often happened when the woman withdrew or there was insufficient evidence.

A preliminary study of 300 cases by the Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate said that police found "no crime" in 72, just 27 of which were false or malicious. A file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service in just one-third of cases, and one-quarter reached court.

The findings, to be followed by a final report next year, will give new impetus to a ministerial review on vulnerable witnesses which is already considering a range of options to tackle low conviction rates in rape cases.

The group is looking at ways in which defence barristers can be prevented from using complainants' sexual histories against them. In one recent case a judge ruled that such evidence was not admissible but had his decision overturned at appeal.

One possibility would be to allow the prosecution to retaliate when a woman's background was used against her, allowing the defendant's own sexual history to be mentioned - including previous convictions for sex crimes.

Other options include new rules preventing defence barristers claiming that a delay in reporting the crime suggested a complainant consented but then got "cold feet".

The group is also looking at whether it might be made easier to bring cases in which a number of women accuse the same man.

Earlier this week The Independent reported that the review was also likely to give judges the right to prevent defendants cross-examining witnesses.

Fear of having embarrassing and prejudicial private details revealed in court is a prime reason why women decide to drop their cases. Those who know their attackers well are also less likely to proceed.

The Home Office research found that women over 35 were less likely to get to court, along with those who had consensual relations with their attackers before the rape and those who suffered few physical injuries.

Professor Sue Lees, of the University of North London, who published her own research on the subject in a book called Carnal Knowledge: Rape on Trial, said official statistics were distorted because so many crimes were not even recorded.

Often police said that there was no crime when they thought the woman would not be a credible witness. "That might be because she is black or she is out late at night," Professor Lees said.

Her latest research, to be published shortly, found that of 109 recorded rape cases just nine resulted in convictions. Of those, six were by strangers and three by acquaintances. Two of the three victims were gang raped and the third was raped by a man 30 years younger than her. Not one man was convicted of one-to-one marital or date rape.

Few older women saw their rapists convicted, she said. "My impression is that there are very few convictions relating to women over 35. It is quite likely that those women are either cohabiting or married, and that their partners don't want them to go ahead. In cases of marital rape, they may be intimidated. There are all sorts of repercussions," she said.

A Home Office spokeswoman confirmed that curbs on defence barristers' use of sexual history evidence and of the amount of time a woman took to report a rape were under consideration. The review, which was looking at vulnerable witnesses in all kinds of cases, would be completed by the end of the month and would report early in the new year.

In a written parliamentary reply to the Liberal Democrats, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said: "The Government are very concerned about the low proportion of reported rapes that result in a conviction. We need to know precisely why."

Richard Allan, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokes-man, said that his party was conducting its own policy review. "Anyone would think twice if they thought their sexual history would be revealed," he said.

John Wadham, director of the campaign group Liberty, welcomed the move but said a balance must be struck.

"We would accept that maybe there needs to be some changes but obviously we need to protect defendants from being wrongly accused," he said.

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