19:09, February 07 440 0 theguardian.com

2017-02-07 19:09:09
MP proposes UK rape shield law to protect victims in court

A private member’s bill to protect rape victims from being cross-examined in court about their sexual history is to be introduced to the House of Commons.

The introduction on Wednesday of the US-style “rape shield law” by the Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts has attracted strong cross-party support, including from two Conservative former ministers.

The sexual offences (amendment) bill 2017 also contains measures to protect sexual assault victims who are attending school or college, place limits on the disclosure of a victim’s name by police to a rapist the victim does not know, and extend the range of offences that can be referred to the court of appeal for unduly lenient sentences.

Supporters of the bill include the Conservative MPs Sarah Wollaston, Sir Edward Garnier and Tim Loughton, Labour’s Jess Phillips, Graham Allen and Carolyn Harris, and Scottish National party, Social Democratic and Labour party, and Liberal Democrat MPs.

The new law would prevent the cross-examination of rape victims about their sexual history, previous behaviour or appearance.

The current law, introduced by Jack Straw when he was home secretary, is supposed to restrict cross-examination of a rape victim’s sexual history in court, but includes an exemption for “similar fact” evidence.

Last year, concerns were expressed over a court of appeal decision permitting such evidence in the case of the footballer Ched Evans, who was acquitted of rape in a retrial.

The Ministry of Justice and the attorney general announced a review of how section 41 of the 1999 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act is working in practice, which is due to be completed in the first half of this year.

Charity Voice4Victims has said case studies show there is widespread use of the loophole and judicial ground rules are not being enforced in some cases.

It cited the case of “Ivy”, a rape victim who was told at a ground rules hearing that her sexual history would not be used at trial. However, in court she was asked by the defence how many sexual partners she had had and was alleged to be promiscuous, without the judge intervening.

In the case of “Barbara”, who was raped by a holiday rep, the company’s lawyer attempted to use as evidence an affair she had been involved in, and tried to undermine her credibility by asking her about admissions to hospital during a period years earlier when she had been overusing alcohol.

In a third case cited by the charity, “M” was asked during cross-examination why she had chosen to wear a red dress on the summer’s day on which she was attacked by a stranger.

A study by the Northumbria court observers panel of 30 rape trials between January 2015 and June 2016 found questioning of the prior sexual conduct of the victims in 11 cases. In four of the cases, in disregard of the rules, applications to allow such questioning were made on the first morning of the trial or after the trial had started.

Saville Roberts said: “It is neither right nor just that a victim of rape can be questioned in court on matters not relevant to the case in hand. Yet in the recent past, victims have been humiliated by lawyers asking questions about their sexual partners, their clothing and appearance.

“Such practices will undoubtedly make victims reluctant to come forward and more likely to drop complaints, and there is already anecdotal evidence that high-profile cases involving such evidence being used has led to a drop in the number of women who are coming forward.”

Harry Fletcher of Voices4Victims said: “There is clear and overwhelming evidence that rape victims are questioned about their previous sexual history, behaviour and appearance. This would not happen to victims involved in other types of trials. Changes to legislation are needed urgently. The government needs to act now.”