Ministers Drop Plan For Experts To Brief Rape Juries
The government is to abandon a controversial proposal to use expert witnesses to brief juries on the “myths” surrounding rape after judges warned the plan could lead to miscarriages of justice, the Guardian has learned.
Under the original proposal psychologists and psychiatrists would give evidence about the range of behaviour among rape victims. They would tell the jury, for example, that rape victims will often not report the rape immediately, and explain that they may appear controlled rather than emotional when telling their story.
The plan, based on experience in the US courts, was put forward by ministers to try to reverse the plummeting conviction rate. At present only one in 20 reported rapes leads to a conviction. But the new solicitor general, Vera Baird, told the Guardian she had had doubts about the proposal in her former job as a minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, now the Ministry of Justice.
Judges who preside over rape cases told ministers that allowing the prosecution to call expert witnesses to demolish rape myths could give rise to miscarriages of justice and double the length of some rape trials, because defence lawyers would insist on calling their own experts.
Ms Baird, the attorney general’s deputy, said: “There were split views even among the women’s lobby about it. The dangers were twofold: one is that you would facilitate the defence calling expert evidence too. The second danger was that there would become a profile of a true rape victim, how they behave, and then women might be put off complaining, thinking ‘I don’t know if I fit this profile’.”
A group of experts has now been asked to draft a statement about rape and its impact, which could be agreed by all parties as representing the “truth” about the crime. This could be presented to the jury in every rape case, either by the trial judge or in a public information booklet.
Ministers pledged to reform the law after the conviction rate dropped from 33% of reported rapes in 1977 to 5.4% in 2005, rising to 5.7% last year.
A US study in 1989 found that myths and stereotypes affected the outcome of rape trials more than any evidence. A poll by Amnesty International in 2005 found one in three respondents thought a woman was partly or wholly responsible for being raped if she acted flirtatiously, while 26% held the same view if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing.
Lisa Longstaff, of the campaigning group Women against Rape, said: “The main obstacle to convictions is prejudices not of juries, but of those who work for the criminal justice agencies. The police don’t gather the evidence; the Crown Prosecution Service are eager to drop cases and their prosecutors do not tackle the defence; and judges don’t ensure the law is applied.”