Leading article: Prejudice and myth

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It would be wrong to assume that a low rate of convictions for rape cases in Britain is, in itself, proof of ingrained prejudice against victims of sexual assault. We have to acknowledge that rape is notoriously difficult to prove. And as a recent Metropolitan Police study has pointed out, more than one third of women who report being raped have consumed alcohol immediately before the attack. The defence often uses this in court to suggest that it is impossible for the victim to say "with absolute certainty" that she did not give her consent. Such a line of questioning may be unpalatable but, unless we are going to scrap our adversarial legal system, there is little that can be done to prevent it. And we must not lose sight of the fact that someone accused of rape has a right to defend themselves.

Yet, at the same time, the declining rate of convictions (now one of the lowest in Europe) cannot be ascribed solely to our rigorous legal system. The stark regional disparities in the conviction rate around Britain, revealed in the study by the Fawcett Commission yesterday, suggests something more malign is at play. What the low rate of conviction shows us is that stubborn myths exist in our society about rape - and that police, prosecutors, judges and juries are by no means immune to them.

Such myths will not be easily dispelled. But there are measures that can counteract their influence. Police procedures for collecting evidence and statements from rape victims have been improving. This is one of the reasons more women are coming forward to report rape. But there are still problems. The Government must demand more sensitivity and rigour from the police, especially in regions where convictions are disproportionately low. Proper police work at an early stage vastly increases the likelihood of a later conviction.

The proposals unveiled by the Solicitor General, Mike O'Brien, yesterday to alter procedures in the courtroom itself are also a step in the right direction. Allowing video interviews with rape victims to be shown to juries would help to counter the myth that allegations of rape are often malicious. And allowing expert witnesses to testify about the trauma of victims will make it easier for juries to understand why there is frequently a delay in the reporting of such crimes. Greater legal protection for those unable to consent to sex because of alcohol or drugs is also welcome.

But perhaps the most practically useful government announcement yesterday was a £2.5m increase in funding for sexual assault referral centres. For too long, these vital health and evidence-gathering services have been under-funded, sending out the depressing message that, for all its sporadic expressions of concern, the state does not take rape particularly seriously. When that sorry state of affairs changes, we might, at last, see the number of convictions for this brutal crime rise.

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