Sex cases dominate criminal courts: Accusations of rape and indecent assault have reached record levels, placing huge burdens on the machinery of law

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The Independent Online
THE WORK of criminal courts is being dominated by sex trials, as an increasing number of cases dealing with rape, indecent assault and child sexual abuse outnumber prosecutions for crimes such as theft, fraud and burglary.

The number of cases was highlighted at the Old Bailey last week when on one day more than half the 14 courts sitting were dealing with sex cases. Court staff report that this high number of sex trials has become common. On the same day 10 years ago, just three courts were concerned with sexual cases.

The increase is not only noticeable at the Central Criminal Court - senior lawyers working in the North of England estimate that sex cases have increased by 200 per cent in the last three years.

The growing number of such cases coming to court reflects the rising number of reported sex offences, which are at record levels. Last year they rose by 6 per cent to 31,400, according to Home Office statistics. Some 4,600 rapes were recorded in 1993, almost 500 or 12 per cent more than in 1992. In 1983 the number of rapes recorded was 1,300. Indecent assaults on a female increased by 7 per cent in the same period. Even when the unreliability of statistics is taken into account, the increase is remarkable.

Members of the judiciary are said to be uneasy that a growing proportion of their work is dealing with perpetrators of sex crimes. While none will speak about it publicly, they have made their feelings about the increasingly distasteful nature of their work, and their concern that society is becoming more sexually violent, known to colleagues.

One clerk - the equivalent of an office manager - in one of London's biggest chambers said judges were tiring of dealing with relentless sexually related violence in the criminal courts: 'One well-known judge has remarked that the Old Bailey is 'awash with blood and semen'. It sums up how a lot of them are feeling.'

The increase in sex abuse cases reflects society's growing awareness of the incidence of sexual abuse. But lawyers are concerned that some people may be using accusations of abuse for their own advantage.

Barristers who specialise in child custody cases report that many warring couples now routinely claim that their ex-spouse abused their children - leading to police inquiries in what would be civil proceedings.

Some judges have also noticed a growing tendency for young people brought before the courts to allege that they have been abused. One judge said: 'We're seeing it regularly now. You get a young thief brought before you, and the defence often claims that his crime is a consequence of his traumas in the past when he was abused.'

One clerk commented: 'The Crown Prosecution Service definitely does not prosecute other crimes like burglary or car theft in the same way. A lot of other cases are treated as NFA - No Further Action - but not the sex cases.'

In fact the opposite is true. Police forces around the country are more willing than ever to investigate such allegations.

A Scotland Yard spokesman said yesterday that there had been 'tremendous advances in terms of the way victims are dealt with and interviewed.' However, many women are loath to go through the trauma of a rape trial, and the rise in sex trials may well represent an even higher incidence of cases. Some suffer a court appearance only to see their attacker walk free even when convicted.

Court of Appeal guidelines state that a sentence of five years is the normal starting point for convicted rapists. But a survey by Dr Paul Robertshaw of Cardiff Law School published last month showed wide variations around the country.

Rapists convicted at Liverpool or Nottingham in 1991 and 1992 were nearly three times more likely to receive a light sentence. Some 19 per cent of them were given non-custodial sentences or imprisoned for less than three years.

Nevertheless, Crown Prosecution Service guidelines are perceived by police and lawyers to be weighted in favour of bringing prosecutions, stating: 'Sexual assaults upon children should always be regarded seriously as should offences against adults, such as rape, which amount to gross personal violation. In such cases, where the Crown Prosecutor is satisfied as to the sufficiency of the evidence, there will seldom be any doubt that prosecution will be in the public interest.'

Despite this, acquittal rates are higher for sex offences than for most other crimes brought before the courts.

One CPS official said yesterday: 'There are a lot more sex offence cases going to court but there are a lot more acquittals. You could say that is because the juries do not believe the victims, or it might be because we are more willing to send those cases to trial.'

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