Rape defendants may have to prove they had consent

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The Independent Online

A change in the law that would make it harder for men to fend off rape claims by saying that the woman had consented to sex is being conxsidered by ministers.

The proposed reform switches the burden of proof to the defendant, who would have to present evidence in court to show that the woman had given her consent without the influence of duress or force. The proposals, which were handed to ministers on Tuesday, also include a recommendation that would bring forced oral sex within the definition of rape.

The Home Office review team, which has conducted a wide-ranging inquiry into all sexual offences, has rejected a previous proposal to introduce a new date-rape law, to distinguish between attacks by strangers and acquaintances. This would have attracted a softer sentence but would have been easier to prove. Ministers are understood to have been reluctant to accept any recommendation which might reduce the seriousness of a crime involving rape.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the proposals, which will be published in June, were part of a move to modernise the laws relating to sexual offences. The changes are aimed at improving the conviction rate for rape cases, amid fears that the odds are stacked too heavily in a defendant's favour.

Despite a rise in the number of rapes reported to police, figures for 1997 show that only nine out of every 100 complaints led to a conviction.

In court the case often comes down to the man's word against the woman's, with many men, especially in "date-rape" scenarios, claiming the accuser was a willing participant. The change in the law relating to consent would make it harder for rapists to escape conviction by instructing their lawyers to exploit this weakness in the law. Under the new law, an alleged rapist would have to convince the jury that the woman had given him her unqualified consent to sex.

A consultation document on the proposals contained in the report is expected to be published this summer.

The Home Office established its review team in 1998 to review all existing legislation on sex offences. The principal statute is the Sexual Offences Act, which was passed in 1956 when the true extent of sexual crime was not known.

The Home Office has been working closely with other government departments, including the Lord Chancellor's Department, those charities which have an interest in this area of the law, and representatives from the legal profession. The consultation period with the public will run until the end of the year.