Leading article: Prejudice, myth, and a system that fails the victim

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The Independent Online

There has been some discussion in the House of Lords of late over what should be done about women who falsely accuse men of rape

There is a far greater scandal in our criminal justice system than the small number of men who are victims of malicious accusations: the vast number of men who are committing rape and getting away with it. Less than six per cent of rape allegations in the UK result in conviction, one of the lowest rates in Europe. Few would suggest that 94 per cent of allegations of rape are false. This failure by our courts to hold so many to account must therefore be acknowledged as an outrage. It is certainly difficult to prove the charge of rape. But our courts should be doing far better than they are.

In fairness to the Government, ministers have been attempting to increase the abysmally low conviction rate for some time. The police have been ordered to improve their practice for collecting evidence and statements from rape victims. The number of sexual assault referral centres has increased. Efforts are being made to improve procedures in courtrooms too. A greater use of police video interviews with victims is under consideration. Expert witnesses are to be allowed to testify about the trauma of victims, making it easier for juries to understand why there is frequently a delay in the reporting of such crimes. Greater protection for those unable to consent to sex because of alcohol is under review.

But this is not enough. Although many of the correct facilities for dealing with an accusation of rape are in place, they are not being used properly. According to a joint report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, police forces are dismissing rape allegations in nearly one third of cases when they should be investigated further.

The report shines a bright light on where the system is failing rape victims. For instance, it argues there is little consistency in the way forensic doctors are employed to examine victims. Call-out lists and rotas for police officers who have been specially trained to deal with such crimes are poorly managed. Front-line police officers have very little training to deal with the crime before specialists arrive. Proper police work at an early stage is essential to the prosecution case. All of these failures decrease the likelihood of conviction. The police and the prosecuting authorities must be made to understand by the Government that their underperformance will not be tolerated.

The crime of rape is still shrouded in myth and prejudice. A disturbingly huge proportion of the population believes it is somehow the woman's "fault" if she gets drunk and is subsequently raped. And as the fallout of the Blackwell case shows, there is still a willingness to believe that malicious accusations of rape are common. It is because of this context that Lord Goldmsith's decision to reconsider the granting of anonymity for accusers is so dangerous. Such a hostile signal from the law is likely to discourage women from coming forward.

More women than ever are reporting rapes to the police. But anonymous surveys still suggest that only a small proportion of women who have been abused in this way are coming forward. Our criminal justice system is still not securing justice for the victims of rape. Ministers should devote their energies to putting this right before they turn their attention to other problems.