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Rape and the British Legal System
In the UK we currently have a conviction rate of 5.6%. The system is clearly failing women yet the media and society still buy into the myth that women cry rape after they have sex that they later regret. The reality is that the system is sexist and stacked against women at every stage - it is no wonder that woman say they feel like they are the ones on trial. In response to the increasing gap between the number of rapes reported and the number of convictions secured the Home Office carried out a study to identify problems in the system. Go here to find out more about this study, titled "A Gap or a Chasm?"
Recent News

18/03/2009:  Scotland Yard Sapphire unit under fire for mishandling rape complaint.

18/06/06:The Home Office have published a new report on domestic violence and what they are doing about it. See: Domestic Violence Delivery Plan - Progress Report

7/06/06:  Proposals from the Sentencing Guidelines Council set out detailed instructions to judges on how to sentence of sex crimes.  The guidelines state that  "acquaintance rape" and "relationship rape" should be treated no less seriously than attacks by strangers.  See: 'Husband rapists' should be treated like random sex attackers  and  Draft Guideline on the Sexual Offences Act 2003

The English Legal System
The following are points that relate to the legal system in England.
For more information about the Scottish legal system please go here.
The police often fail to take reports of rape seriously. Problems with the police include:
  • Not taking the initial report seriously - disbelieving women and discouraging them from reporting.
  • Failing to protect women from violent partners.
  • Failing to take a good statement - asking inappropriate questions about a woman's sexual history and missing out important details.
  • Failing to gather or keep evidence - such as taking a drug test as soon as possible, talking to witnesses, or by losing vital evidence
  • Pressuring women to drop the case or to accept a charge of a lower crime (eg sexual assault instead of rape).
  • Racism - after the murder of Stephen Lawrence the Police were branded "institutionally racist" in the Macpherson report. Women of colour therefore face both sexism and racism when trying to get justice and safety from violence
Once the Police have gathered the evidence the case will then be passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS is responsible for reviewing the evidence of the case and deciding whether or not it should go to court. However the CPS often drop cases claiming that the woman would not make a good witness and that therefore there is little chance of a conviction. Reasons that the CPS will drop the case claiming that the woman is an unreliable witness include:
  • Delay in reporting
  • A previous history of child abuse
  • A previous relationship with the rapist
  • She'd been drinking or taking drugs
  • Mental health issues - even if these are as a direct result of the rape
  • A previous report of rape
  • Previous criminal convictions
  • Type of job
  • Sexual orientation
  • Immigration status
The CPS will also often misread evidence that the Police provide them with and make a decision to not believe the woman.

The woman in a rape case is considered to be a witness. She therefore does not meet her lawyer until the day of the trial. The CPS lawyer is therefore unfamiliar with the details of the case and will often fail to:
  • Draw attention to all the evidence
  • Prevent inappropriate questioning from the defence
  • Direct the woman to tell her story so that all the facts come out
This was a major problem in the British legal system - since 1976 a man can claim honest belief in consent as defence. Therefore men's assumption that they are entitled to sex is more important than whether the woman consented or not. However there have been improvements since the introduction of the 2003 Sexual Offences Review which states that a man must have taken reasonable steps to ensure that he has consent.

Like the police, Judges are often sexist and will therefore direct a jury to find the defendant not guilty or even throw the case out of court due to "lack of evidence" - even if the CPS has failed to present all the evidence available.

Women are entitled to claim compensation even if a conviction is secured in court. However awards are often denied or reduced based on the behaviour or character of the woman. Again women experience discrimination because of their medical history, occupation, sexuality, immigration status, colour, previous criminal convictions and relationship to the rapist.

For articles in the British Press that highlight problems in the legal system please check the Media Page
The Scottish Legal System
I was based in England for eight years and have had experience with the English law system. The laws in Scotland are slightly different. The following links provide more information about problems with the Scottish legal system and links to groups that can offer support.
  • Is it time to rewrite Scottish rape laws? Article from The Scotsman which outlines problems in the current legal system.
  • The Legal Definition of Rape -  Research note written by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre setting out the legal definition of rape in Scotland.
  • Controversial rape statistics spark call for change in the law - Scotsman article in response to recent statistics that show only 6% of reported rapes in Scotland result in a conviction.
  • Rape Crisis Scotland - The national office for rape crisis and sexual abuse centres, part of the Scottish Rape Crisis Network.
  • Legal Procedure - This link will take you to the page on the Central Scotland Rape Crisis and Abuse Centre which outlines the legal process in Scotland.
  • Zero Tolerance An organisation promoting innovative policy and practice that tackle the root causes of male violence against women and children.
  • Scottish Women's Aid - Information and support for women dealing with Domestic Violence
  • Engender -  Information, research and networking organisation for women in Scotland, working with other groups locally and internationally to improve women's lives and increase their power and influence.
A Gap Or A Chasm?
Attrition in reported rape cases.
Home office research study 293.
Below are notes I made while reading the recent Home Office report A Gap or a Chasm. To read the full report click here. For press articles discussing the report please see the Media page.


  • A 1991 UK survey found that one in four women had experienced rape or attempted rape in their life time, with current and ex partners the most common perpetrators, and the vast majority not disclosing at the time.
  • Women are more likely to be raped by men they know and a considerable proportion had experienced repeat incidents by the same perpetrator.
  • Cases involving known perpetrators were least likely to be reported.
  • 3% of reported cases were designated false which was considerably lower that the extent of false reporting estimated by police officers interviewed in the study.
  • Those with a disability were almost twice as likely to be in the false accusations group as the non-disabled.
  • Cases were more likely to be designated as false where a previous allegation had been made
  • Around one-quarter of reported cases were "no-crimed".
  • A number of studies have found high rates of "no-criming" not limited to the official guidelines for this category. No-criming should be limited to a narrow range of circumstances but continues to be used for a far wider group of cases than counting rules designate - it still functions as something of a dustbin.
  • Police often fail to gather the appropriate evidence instead placing emphasis on evidence which is discrediting to the victim
  • "the woman in question could not understand why the fraud she had phoned first and her husband who had been a witness to the impacts of the sexual assault on her had not been interviewed, yet a lot of emphasis was placed on questionnaire responses from people when hardly knew her"
  • One of the most perplexing aspects of police investigations were a number of cases in which "witnesses" were presented as "proving" that the sexual encounter had been consensual, or as supporting this interpretation. In no case was there any suggestion that these "witnesses" were present when sex took place, but their evidence was deemed more credible than the complainants account"
  • A small number of forensic medical reports and police statements contained inappropriate material on the complainant's previous sexual history.
  • Over three-quarters of cases were lost or dropped at the police stage.
  • There was little evidence of attempts to build cases, and some evidence of poor investigation and understanding of the law, with clear emphasis in some cases entirely on what was discrediting.
  • Police don't keep women informed with what is happening with their case.
  • Key factors in not completing the initial process of reporting were being disbelieved, being discouraged by the police, fear of the CJS and fear of court.

  • 12 percent of reported cases reached the trial stage.
  • Around half of all convictions were the result of guilty pleas, and where a full trial took place, an acquittal was the more likely outcome.
  • Where a full trial took place an acquittal was more likely to be the outcome than a conviction.
  • Lack of contact between the prosecution - both the CPS and the prosecution barrister - resulted in acquittals attributed to the prosecution counsel being poorly prepared, and appearing unfamiliar with the facts of the case.
  • The majority of women whose outcome was an acquittal complained of weak prosecution advocacy in the court room.
  • An overestimation of the scale of false allegations by police officers and prosecutors feeds into a culture of scepticism.
  • The belief amongst some CPS professionals that many complaints are false, that victims are to blame for risk-taking, places unreasonable requirements on complainants to demonstrate that they are "real", deserving victims
Fighting Back
For more information on campaigns to change the legal system please see
Women Against Rape, also Truth About Rape UK.
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