Scottish rape ruling lifts need for evidence of force

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The Independent Online

Scotland's senior judges have tightened the country's 150-year-old rape laws to make it illegal for a man to have sex with a woman without her consent.

The move yesterday follows the acquittal of an Aberdeen university student last year who was cleared of the crime because there was no evidence he had used force.

Edward Watt, 24, denied twice raping a 19-year-old virgin in the university's halls of residence in November 1999. The trial judge, Lord Abernethy, was forced to rule that there were insufficient grounds on which to prosecute the case as no evidence of force existed.

Lord Abernethy based his decision on the definition of rape established by a bench of five judges in the 19th century, who decided that a woman had been raped only if sexual intercourse had taken place "forcibly and against her will".

The case immediately caused an outcry among victim support groups, which claimed the definition was outdated, and in December a panel of seven judges, headed by Scotland's most senior judge, the Lord Justice General, Lord Cullen, spent two days weighing up arguments for a change in the law.

Scotland's most senior law officer, the Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, asked the judges to rule that consent, rather than force, was the main issue in deciding whether a woman had been raped.

At a brief hearing at the High Court in Edinburgh, Lord Cullen said the court had agreed by a majority that the original 1858 ruling should be overruled. This will bring Scotland's law more into line with England and the rest of Europe.

He said: "Rape would continue to be treated as an aggravated assault, with the aggravation constituted by the sexual intercourse having taken place without the consent of the woman. This of itself involves the criminal use of force."

Yesterday, David Burnside, the solicitor who represented Mr Watt's accuser, welcomed the ruling. He said: "It clarifies the position and will give other women a degree of certainty and courage to come forward and report this very serious crime."

A spokeswoman for the Glasgow Rape Crisis Centre said she hoped the change would improve the country's poor conviction rate. At present fewer than 5 per cent of reported rape cases result in a successful prosecution.

Mr Watt's counsel, Gerard Moynihan QC, said the change could be unworkable because of the requirement in Scottish law for corroboration – the verifying of evidence through two independent sources.