10:57, April 30 150 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-30 10:57:03
Scotland to debate policy that may force rape victims to testify

The row over new prosecution guidelines that would compel rape complainants to give evidence in court is to be debated in the Scottish parliament, as campaigners say the policy will have a “chilling effect” on women coming forward to report sexual violence.

The controversial guidance on dealing with “reluctant complainers”, issued at the beginning of March, means alleged rape victims who try to withdraw from cases can be compelled to testify when prosecution is deemed to be in the public interest.

The members’ debate, to be held on Tuesday, was proposed by the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who described the new guidelines as “massively retrograde”.

Dugdale told the Guardian: “This is very technical stuff but the blunt truth is that women could be compelled to give evidence, and if they refuse, could face prosecution.

“The crown should be talking about strategies to improve the court system rather than turning the spotlight back on to women.”

The solicitor general for Scotland, Alison Di Rollo, will respond to the debate, making it the second time in a week the senior prosecutor has had to defend the guidelines before the Scottish parliament.

Last Wednesday, Di Rollo was unable to guarantee that rape complainants would never face imprisonment for ignoring a witness warrant. The solicitor general insisted, however, that the serving of such a warrant to a rape complainant would only arise “in the most exceptional circumstance”.

She said the focus of the revised policy was not to compel rape complainants to testify but to ensure that the burden of decision-making rested with the crown. This was the result of concerns that decisions about whether to prosecute rely heavily on the willingness of the accuser to give evidence.

The guidelines come only four months after a report by the Inspectorate of Prosecutions described women’s experience of rape trials in Scotland as “secondary victimisation”, leading to calls for a radical overhaul of the court system.

Supporting Dugdale’s motion, Sandy Brindley, the director of Rape Crisis Scotland, said: “I’m astonished that the Crown Office would move in this direction when the inspectorate report was so clear about how women experienced court.”

Brindley said she did not understand what purpose the guidelines served. “If someone is so terrified that you need a warrant to get them to court, you’re never going to get a conviction.”

The Crown Office has emphasised that the option to seek a witness warrant has always been available in criminal cases, but Emma Ritch, the executive director of Engender, said the revisions represented “a significant shift in policy, which seems out of step with other work to tackle violence against women in Scotland”.

“What is clear from our engagement with women in communities across the nation is the fragility of their trust in the criminal justice system. Forcing women to give evidence against their will seems likely to have a chilling effect on women making a complaint in the first place.”

Scotland’s chief law officer, lord advocate James Wolffe, has held a private briefing with MSPs to address concerns about the guidelines, and met Rape Crisis Scotland last week. The charity said it was only consulted once, at an early stage, before the March announcement, while the Crown Office has insisted it “consulted widely” before finalising the guidance.

A Crown Office spokesperson said of sexual offence cases: “Circumstances vary greatly and it would not be appropriate to lay down a rule that proceedings can never be taken if the complainer is reluctant. However, we do expect this would and could only arise in the most exceptional of circumstances.

“The new guidance will make sure that if the complainer is reluctant, the reasons for this will be fully explored and all reasonable steps taken to re-engage the complainer before a decision is taken about the case.”

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