Ann Coffey

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Radical call to review use of juries in rape trials

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Juries may need to be scrapped in rape trials because of the dominance of ‘rape myths’ in society and the shockingly low charging and conviction rates.

Ann Coffey, MP for Stockport, will call in Parliament today for an urgent independent inquiry into the crisis engulfing the criminal justice system’s approach to rape cases.

This would include an examination into why the numbers of rapes charged by the Crown Prosecution Service has plummeted at the same time as reporting rates have soared and why there are such low conviction rates, especially for date and acquaintanceship rape.

Crucially Ms Coffey also wants a wide ranging inquiry to examine if juries are the best way to deliver justice in rape cases.

Greater Manchester has the fourth lowest conviction rate for rape amongst the twenty largest police forces – only Surrey, Cheshire and Northumbria have lower rates.

The conviction rate for the Greater Manchester area is 38 per cent compared with the 45 per cent national average, according to the Ministry of Justice criminal justice statistics figures for 2017. There 198 prosecutions in courts in Greater Manchester, where rape was the principal (most serious) offence. Of these, 76 (38%) resulted in a conviction.

Recent academic research by Dr Dominic Wilmott from Huddersfield University revealed that nearly half of jurors in rape cases come to a guilty verdict before deliberation of the trial because of the overwhelming dominance of ‘rape myths’ in society.

In an adjournment debate today, Ms Coffey will outline what she calls an “explosive cocktail” of figures which she says prove that dramatic changes are needed.

The number of rapes charged by the CPS has dropped by 23 per cent to its lowest level in a decade despite reporting rates rocketing to 41,000 – a massive 150 per cent increase in the last five years.

There has also been a 13 per cent fall in prosecutions despite the drop in charges and a 12 per cent decrease in convictions.

Ms Coffey will say that there is a greater willingness by survivors to come forward but the criminal justice system is failing to keep pace and deliver justice.

She will express particular concern about the lack of convictions in date or acquaintance rape cases, especially those involving young men.

The most common cause of unsuccessful prosecutions in rape cases is jury acquittal, which accounts for six in ten of all unsuccessful rape prosecutions.

Figures obtained by the MP through a Freedom of Information request revealed that less than a third of prosecutions (32 per cent) brought against young men result in a conviction, which is much lower than that for older men which is 46 per cent.

The overwhelming majority of rape victims still choose not to report to the police for fear of not being believed and yet the prevailing narrative in some sections of the media is that lying about rape is common. Only 17 per cent of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police because of fear of not being believed, according to the Office for National Statistics figures for March 2017.

Disproportionate focus on the small number of false rape allegations perpetuates the public perception that lying about rape is common when in fact the opposite is true.  The CPS estimated in 2012 that only 3 per cent of the 1,149 cases ‘may’ have been malicious.

Ms Coffey said: “The conviction figures suggest a reluctance on the part of juries to find young men guilty of rape even when they believe a rape has been committed. This may reflect the prevailing attitude in society and therefore of juries to young women who are often blamed for putting themselves in to risky situations.

“Juries view evidence through the lens of prevailing stereotypes which shape the views of society.

“There is still a dominance of rape myths in our culture, including that a women who has drunk a lot cannot complain if she is raped or that it is only rape if someone has injuries or that real rapes are done by strangers in alleyways.

“Research shows that stereotypes about how rape victims are expected to behave remain prevalent in society – and by extension in juries. There is still a lack of understanding about why a woman might not report an assault immediately, or might not fight or how a victim of a sexual assault might behave in the immediate aftermath of an attack. There are still huge gaps in the public understanding about what sexual consent actually means. Juries take these attitudes into the court room with them.

“A perfect storm is developing where juries are reluctant to convict young men charged with rape; the CPS are therefore reluctant to prosecute and the police are therefore reluctant to refer. The result of this is that victims will stop coming forward and justice will be denied.

“The danger is we will be thrown back to the dark days where victims of abuse are silenced and dare not speak out.”

Ms Coffey called for an inquiry to take a radical approach including:

  • An inquiry into the use of juries in rape cases to see if they are effective and fit for purpose
  • The possibility of jury vetting to identify bias
  • Is there a role for specialist rape courts similar to specialist domestic violence courts?
  • Should judicial directions to juries about rape myths be updated
  • Why are there such low charging and conviction rates for rape, especially date and acquaintance rape and how can this can be improved
  • Should expert witnesses be allowed to give evidence in rape cases about responses of victims and effects of trauma
  • Should there be pre-recorded cross examination of victims to protect them from being bullied by barristers

Ms Coffey added:

“I absolutely accept that the justice system needs to deliver justice and that means that the innocent go free and the guilty are sentenced but my concern at the moment is the conviction rates indicate that the scales of justice are tipped against the victim.

“Juries are reluctant to convict and this is not because of false allegations it is to do with the fact that understanding of consent is a challenging area for the public. It is no use us all wringing our hands about this. We cannot have a situation in which young women who have been raped feel that they have no access to justice because this undermines the whole justice system.

“Ministers need to take strong action including not only a fundamental inquiry into the whole system but by taking the lead to forge a better understanding of rape myths and public understanding of what constitutes consent.

“Without such action rape myths will continue to ricochet around the criminal justice system with terrible consequences for victims”.

 

Ms Coffey’s debate on ‘Rape myths and juries’ will take place at 11am on Wednesday November 21 in Westminster Hall