Leading article: Greater understanding is needed

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The Independent Online

Something is seriously wrong with our judicial process if only 5.6 per cent of rapes reported in England and Wales result in the defendant being found guilty as charged. That is barely one in 20.

This tiny conviction rate is unsatisfactory from every point of view. It means that many victims, who have often had to pluck up considerable courage to go to the police, are probably not receiving the protection of the law they deserve. It means that the police and the courts are spending time and money on proceedings that have little chance of resulting in a conviction. It also suggests that some of those charged are escaping the prison sentence they should be serving. The attention that David Cameron's recent speech on the subject attracted was proof that not for the first time he had struck a popular chord. For all these reasons, we applaud the Government's decision that juries in rape trials should be given information about the ways in which such attacks can affect the behaviour of the victim at the time and the lasting psychological effects they can have. This, at least, should help juries to appreciate the full gravity of the crime.

There is still some way to go, however, before juries receive their packs. A group of judges, doctors and others has now to consider what information should be supplied and how. This may be necessary, but the whole process seems to lack any sense of urgency while providing ample opportunity for ministers to boast about how actively they are addressing this "women's issue".

It is true that much has changed over the years, mostly for the better, in the way the crime of rape is treated by the authorities. Specialist police units are designed to minimise the further trauma for victims. Police and prosecutors are in general more professional about how they prepare their cases, and some of the most distressing lines of questioning have been closed off. Women, too, are more aware of their rights and readier to defend them.

But official figures also reveal considerable regional variation, both in the number of prosecutions and their success. Unsympathetic judges still make an appearance in court reports. And while we absolutely reject the notion of targets for convictions that way lies subverted justice and a queue of appeals there is clearly a need to bring the worst performers up to the standard of the best.

More information should not do anything to make jurors less inclined to err on the side of presuming innocence. "He said, she said" scenarios are inherently difficult to judge. But if the initiative helps to narrow the gap of comprehension between those who have suffered rape and those who have not, it will make a valuable contribution.