Wife wins damages for rape

Case against husband sets civil precedent
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Men who rape their wives risk being sued for thousands of pounds in civil damages, even if they escape criminal prosecution, an unprecedented ruling in favour of a woman has established.

In what is believed to be the first case of its kind in Britain, the 40-year-old woman, who has five children, began a civil action when police inquiries into the alleged attack by her husband ended in a decision not to prosecute.

The husband, whom the woman later divorced, was ordered to pay pounds 14,000 in damages after a judge at Bradford County Court upheld her claim.

The woman's victory shows that, regardless of whether it leads to a criminal prosecution, rape within marriage can still rebound heavily on the perpetrator - and his pocket - in the civil courts. Such cases are decided on a balance of probabilities, a lower standard of proof than is required in the criminal courts.

There were still criticisms, however, from women's rights campaigners, who believe that the justice system as a whole still takes a timid approach to rape within marriage.

The pounds 14,000 award was in fact made last year - it is only now that the woman feels able to talk about the events leading up to it.

The attack took place in the former family home on Boxing Day night in 1992. The woman told a nurse about it two months later and the police were informed but no criminal prosecution materialised.

A Crown Prosecution Service spokeswoman said that no reference to the defendant could be traced in area records, which suggests that the police may never have passed the file to the service for it to consider whether to pursue a prosecution.

It was being suggested yesterday that the woman's complaint was never proceeded with because it was felt that the husband would not repeat the offence and that a prosecution would not be in the public interest. But the CPS spokeswoman said: "We are bound by the code for Crown prosecutors which requires cases to be prosecuted where there is enough evidence for a real prospect of prosecution."

The woman, who has since remarried and cannot be named for legal reasons, said: "It has been a terrible ordeal, but it has been worth it, especially if it helps other women.

"The civil courts are an alternative place for women to take and win cases and I would urge all women to use them in their fight for justice."

Mark Husband, the woman's lawyer, said both sides' legal teams had searched for precedents but none could be found.

The woman said: "At times I felt like giving up. I still feel that if he wasn't my husband he would have been put away for what he did. I am the one who has been left with a life sentence, because I can never forget what happened." The decision is bound to prompt other women with unresolved rape complaints to follow suit. But Julie Bindel, assistant director of Leeds Metropolitan University's research unit on violence and abuse, emphasised that it highlighted the need to lobby for improvements in the justice system.

She said: "While I applaud the civil victory for this woman and her bravery in bringing it, women should not have to use the civil route for such a serious crime.

"If the Crown Prosecution Service was more courageous in taking cases, if it upped the stakes, then we would undoubtedly get more convictions. "

Lesley McLean, manager of Surviving Trauma After Rape, a West Yorkshire rape support group, said: "What's most important to a woman who has been raped is being believed."

She added that there was a danger that civil cases would be seen as women wanting to get money out of rape. "That's already happening with criminal injuries compensation and it's having a detrimental effect."

A special five-judge Court of Appeal, headed by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, made rape in marriage a crime in a landmark ruling in 1991. The decision was upheld by the House of Lords, decisively overturning the 250-year-old rule that a husband could not rape his wife, which rape law campaigners had condemned as a "legal lie".