View from Westminster: Close the loopholes to protect rape victims

News Desk (07 July, 2021)

'In practice, as the Victim’s Commissioner has said, rape has been decriminalised'

31615Harriet Harman

Last year 342 rapes in Southwark were reported to the police. It is a horrific crime. But the government has acknowledged, and even apologised, for its woeful failure to ensure justice for victims of rape, writes Harriet Harman…

If you report a drug offence there is a 20.9 per cent chance of someone being charged.  But for rape allegations, only 1.4 per cent end up with the suspect being charged.

In practice, as the Victim’s Commissioner has said, rape has been “decriminalised”.

The government has promised to try and sort out this problem which, though always bad, has got worse since the Conservatives took power in 2010.

And while there are many changes that need to be made, there’s one improvement the government should make right away.

For decades it’s been recognised that the criminal justice process is an ordeal for a rape victim.

Many victims feel shame and embarrassment to report a sexual experience.

It’s awful for a victim who’s been raped by a stranger in an attack, for example in a park, to endure his defence that she consented to sex with someone she’d never met before.

And defendants will habitually claim that she consented, dragging her sexual history into court.

They want to make her abandon the prosecution rather than face all her previous sexual activity being spoken about in court.

They seek to tarnish her reputation with the jury claiming, for example, that she’d previously committed adultery and therefore must be the sort of person who would have agreed to sex with the defendant.

It’s been acknowledged since the 1990s that it’s wrong for him to try and prove she consented to sex with him because she’d had sex with other men before.

Yet research shows that this is exactly what happens in a third of all rape trials.

In one recent case the complainant was distraught to hear the defence, without warning, give evidence that she’d previously had an abortion.

Her parents who’d come to court to support her had no idea about the abortion till her medical records were read out.

The law prohibits the naming of complainants of sex offences. That is a longstanding rule which had to be brought in because otherwise complainants were not prepared to go to court because of the fear of their “dirty linen being washed in public”.

But while that rule could be relied on to protect complainants when it was a matter of experienced journalists reporting cases, it doesn’t work in the same way in this era of social media.

Anything said in court, and heard by people sitting in the public gallery, can instantly go out on social media.

The anonymity of Twitter users means it is effectively impossible to police the right to anonymity of rape complainants. So, what happens in court is more important than ever.

With the backing of MPs from all parties I’ve proposed a way to tighten the law to make it work in the way parliament has always intended.

The defendant will still get a fair trial but the complainant’s right to privacy will be protected. The government says it agrees that there’s a problem but has referred it for consideration by the Law Commission which might take years to report.

This has been a problem for years. We don’t want many more to go by before we get justice for rape victims.

The government can and must close this loophole now.

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