14:57, March 24 337 0 theguardian.com

2017-03-24 14:57:03
Harman urges law change to protect rape complainants

The Labour MP Harriet Harman has introduced a proposed law change that would prevent rape complainants from being quizzed in court about their sexual history, saying the move was needed in the wake of the acquittal of the footballer Ched Evans.

Evans won his appeal last year in a case that centred on evidence from two other men who testified about the complainant’s sexual preferences and the language she used during sex.

A law change in 1999 had barred such court tactics, but permitted defence lawyers to apply to introduce a complainant’s previous sexual history under certain circumstances. The Evans case prompted significant disquiet about how this clause could be used. Harman has tabled an amendment to the government’s prisons and courts bill, which reaches the committee stage in the Commons next week, to remove the exception.

The idea of introducing a complainant’s sexual history into a rape trial had “no evidential value” and was deeply outdated, Harman said. “It’s based on the old notion that there were two sorts of women – those who were ‘easy’ and those who were virtuous – and if you were easy, you would have sex with anybody, because you were that sort of woman,” she said. “What you have to look at is the evidence and the information around that encounter, not any previous sexual encounters.”

Harman said the use of the exception to the 1999 law in the Evans case was not the only recent such instance. “I think there’s quite a lot of evidence that the situation had been drifting even before the Ched Evans case,” she said. “I think it was a landmark in cementing that things were going in the wrong direction.”

Harman said it was increasingly common for rape trials to hear defence applications to cross-examine the complainant under the exception, which was added to the 1999 law in the Lords. This was likely to deter women who had been raped from going to the police, she argued.

“The problem is, even if it’s not in open court, the idea that there’s going to be a court with lots of people in it hearing evidence brought forward by the defence about your previous sexual conduct, in itself would be a deterrent,” she said.

Harman’s proposed amendment would see the clauses about exceptions struck out of the 1999 law, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act. She said she had sought to attach the measure to the prisons and courts bill in part because this was adding separate provisions intended to support rape complainants, notably allowing them to undergo cross-examination via video.

Harman said she hoped the justice secretary, Liz Truss, would see the logic of potentially incorporating the amendment into the government bill. “She’s using this bill to try and make progress,” Harman said. “The problem is that the ruling in the Ched Evans case left wide open the problem of previous sexual history.

“Even if you give your evidence on video, if what that’s going to consist of is all or any of the people you’ve had sex with in the past, and how that sex was conducted, and what you said during the process, then you’re right back to where you started.”

Harman said she hoped Conservative women MPs, including some of the new contingent elected in 2015, could press Truss to back the measure. She said: “This is an opportunity to see whether or not there can be an alliance of women in the House of Commons who are for really mainstream women’s issues.”