Sexism of juries allows rapists to go unpunished

Many may have wondered whether the courts have begun to be too protective towards defendants in rape trials
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The Independent Online

A university lecturer who was cleared of raping a student last week has admitted concealing his criminal convictions when he applied for a job. Neither of his former employers was aware that Russell Griffiths had a criminal record for harassing women, including convictions for threatening to kill and sending obscene material through the post. Nor was the jury at Lincoln Crown Court allowed to know that he kept a "little black book", listing 90 lovers and rating their sexual performance, on the grounds that it would be "overwhelmingly prejudicial" to his case.

A university lecturer who was cleared of raping a student last week has admitted concealing his criminal convictions when he applied for a job. Neither of his former employers was aware that Russell Griffiths had a criminal record for harassing women, including convictions for threatening to kill and sending obscene material through the post. Nor was the jury at Lincoln Crown Court allowed to know that he kept a "little black book", listing 90 lovers and rating their sexual performance, on the grounds that it would be "overwhelmingly prejudicial" to his case.

Many people, on hearing the sordid details of this case, may have wondered whether the courts have begun to be too protective towards defendants in rape trials. There was a feeling, as recently as five years ago, that men were increasingly vulnerable to false accusations that had the potential to ruin their lives, even if they were eventually acquitted. I have never had much time for this theory, which is based on the unproven assumption that there is a much higher incidence of false reporting in rape cases than for other crimes of violence. These days, though, the idea that we should worry about defendants is a sick joke. The stark truth about our justice system is that the penalty for rape has in effect been abolished.

The most recent figures show that, of rape cases reported to the police last year, 7.5 per cent resulted in convictions. The other 92.5 per cent either did not get to court or ended in acquittals. No one in their right mind would suggest that all of these accusations, most of which are taken very seriously by the police, are the work of neurotic fantasists or women trying to cover up the fact that they had consensual sex. But of the 8,500 cases reported, only 634 led to convictions.

This is partly because, in spite of recent changes in the law, some victims are too terrified of the court process to go through with it. Others are advised not to do so by the police, even where they believe the women's stories, because rape trials are so gruelling. When a case does get to court, the odds are stacked against the victim: the conviction rate is 30 per cent, compared with 43 per cent for assault cases generally. A leading barrister and authority on rape, Vera Baird QC, is unequivocal about what is happening. "There is no deterrent at all," she says.

The Government is concerned about this. Since last month, defendants may no longer cross-examine victims, ending a scandalous situation in which a rape victim could find herself being asked intrusive questions about her sexual history by the man who attacked her. The Government has also limited the circumstances in which a woman can be questioned by defence lawyers about her previous boyfriends, although it has left a glaring loophole: if a man's defence is that he believed the victim consented, he is still permitted to make unsubstantiated claims about her sexual history.

As recently as August this year, Charles Clarke, the Home Office minister, said he wanted to bolster confidence in the system so that more rape victims would report their ordeals. Yet this is precisely what has been happening over the past decade: many more women are coming forward, and fewer are being believed. The reason is that the attitudes of juries and barristers are years out of date. Research shows they do not like cases involving defendants and victims who knew each other, even though 88 per cent of rapes are committed by acquaintances or partners.

They like straightforward (and mostly non-existent) cases, in which strangers leap on virgins from dark alleys. One defence barrister, interviewed for a project set up by Professor Jennifer Temkin of Sussex University, confirmed the kind of prejudice victims are likely to encounter: "If you live in a squat or are a single mother, it does have an impact on juries. They think you are more likely to have got what you deserved." Another confided that "there are lots of women who make complaints of rape who would sleep with the local donkey".

It is institutional sexism, in other words, that is denying justice to the overwhelming majority of rape victims. Changing court procedures is a step in the right direction, but something much more drastic is required to break down the misogynistic atmosphere of the courtroom. Training is the most urgent priority, as Professor Temkin's report rightly concludes. How much longer are we going to tolerate a criminal justice system that is not just failing women but allowing thousands of men to get away with rape?

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