Few crimes are so reliant on the testimony of the victim as rape. And for some defence barristers, a rape victim’s character is still fair game. The sort of aggressive cross-examination by defence barristers determined to break victims’ resolve was supposed to have been consigned to the past, but persists. Last year, horrifically, in the middle of a trial for sexual assault, the victim, Frances Andrade, killed herself after being accused of lying.
It is unusual that a Director of Public Prosecutions speaks so publicly about the failings of the legal system. But in an interview with i, Alison Saunders today calls for an overhaul of judges’ guidance to juries in rape trials. The rape conviction rate is unacceptably low, she says, and some women have lost faith in the legal system: “I think it has a broader impact on the willingness of people to come forward and report that they have been raped.”
Myths are still propagated about a victim’s sexual history, and about the effect of any alcohol they have drunk, Ms Saunders says – so, before jurors hear evidence, judges must warn them not to form false judgements.
Police and prosecutors are still not getting to grips with the crime, despite extra training, more victim support (though this remains negligible, for such a stigmatising crime) and specialist forensic centres. As we reported on Friday, the conviction rate is falling, again, and the number of cases referred to prosecutors has fallen by a third in two years, despite a rise in recorded offences. As the former DPP Keir Starmer told i: “It is not due to rape offences dropping, I am certain about that.”
Many women never come forward. Research suggests that only about 6 per cent of rape offences result in a conviction for rape.
This situation shames one of the world’s finest judicial systems.
Ms Saunders’ new guidance on how police and prosecutors must handle rape cases, due later this year, cannot come soon enough.