19:17, November 20 53 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-20 19:17:08
Scrap juries in rape trials, Labour MP suggests

Juries may need to be scrapped in rape trials because of the dominance of rape myths in society and “shockingly low” charging and conviction rates, the House of Commons will hear.

In a debate in parliament on Wednesday, Ann Coffey will call for an urgent independent inquiry into what she describes as “the crisis engulfing the criminal justice system’s approach to rape cases”. The Labour MP for Stockport will ask the government to examine whether juries are the best way to deliver justice in rape cases.

The debate comes after the Guardian revealed in September that less than a third of prosecutions brought by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) against young men result in a conviction.

“The 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,” said Coffey. “Research shows that stereotypes about how rape victims are expected to behave remain prevalent in society – and by extension in juries.

“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.”

According to statistics uncovered by Coffey in a freedom of information request to the CPS, men aged 18 to 24 in England and Wales are consistently less likely to be found guilty than older men on trial. Young men accounted for more than a quarter of defendants in rape-only cases in the five years to 2017-18.

The most recent figures on rape from the CPS show that the number of rape cases being charged by prosecutors has fallen to the lowest in a decade, despite an increase in the number of incidents reported to police.

The CPS charged 849 fewer defendants in 2017-18 than in the previous year – a 23.1% drop – according to the service’s annual Violence against women and girls report.

Earlier this month, Max Hill, the new director of public prosecutions, defended the steep decline in the number of people charged with rape, but denied prosecutors were given targets to screen out weak cases as reported in the Guardian.

On Tuesday the retired judge Sir John Gillen called for better training for rape juries, limited access to rape trials and legal representation for rape complainants as part of his review into the law around sexual offences in Northern Ireland.

Coffey called for a similar “radical” inquiry for England and Wales to look at whether juries were fit for purpose in rape trials, the possibility of jury vetting, the introduction of specialist rape courts, low conviction and charging rate and the pre-recording of cross-examination.

“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 that the conviction rates indicate that the scales of justice are tipped against the victim,” she said.

“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.”

Case study

Annie, not her real name, gave evidence at the trial of her ex-husband in 2017. He was acquitted of seven counts of rape and sexual assault.

“I found it very hard to understand how such an important decision is made by random people from the electoral roll that have never probably spoken to a victim and who may have their own views. I don’t blame the people in the jury now. I did initially think to myself, ‘they should be ashamed of themselves,’ but they didn’t volunteer – they have no choice.

“I blame the justice system. It is supposed to protect the innocent from going to prison, but also victims – who are let down by the wrong decisions being made by a jury that doesn’t understand control, consent or abuse, rape or sexual assault in a relationship. It is not straightforward.

“I had to wait over 18 months for my case to get to court, but what the jury sees then is not the person I was in the months after that last incident … You are in front of people you don’t know or who don’t know you, talking about intimate and private details of what happened and then waiting to find out what his defence will be. What they didn’t see was me prior to the trial, constantly crying for months, panic attacks, fear of him coming after me, being on antidepressants and sleeping pills.

“I don’t think anyone appreciates how hard it is for a victim to go through with the court process. You are told due to all the evidence it is a strong case, so you put your faith in the justice system, only to be let down by the wrong verdict.

“Then the anger comes, how did the jury come to the decision they did, when the only piece missing in this case, was him not admitting he did it?

“I often still think about it. I have some days that I try to be happy and don’t think about it all but it’s the injustice that I will never be able to get over.

“He is carrying on with his life, probably believing he did have the right to treat me the way he did. It is only my children that make it bearable. But I am still lonely, feel unable to completely trust anyone and fearful that I will always be alone, all because of what he did.”

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