Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Wednesday, 15 October 2008 16:38 UK

End sleepwalk rape defence - MP

Harry Cohen
The defence of sleepwalking is unacceptable, Harry Cohen says

A Labour MP is seeking to outlaw the defence of sleepwalking in rape cases, arguing that acquittals on such grounds are "political correctness gone mad".

Harry Cohen has introduced legislation, which is unlikely to be passed, to prevent anyone being able to claim they were sleepwalking in rape cases.

Recent cases of acquittal on this basis "defied common sense", he said.

Ministers said such cases were "rare" but getting a conviction must depend on proof that an act was "intentional".

'Not right'

Campaigners believe a handful of cases in recent years where men were acquitted of rape after arguing they had been sleepwalking, and not in control of their actions, exposed a damaging loophole in existing rape laws.

It is not right that the rapist walks free. If a rape has been committed, a guilty verdict should be delivered
Harry Cohen

Introducing a ten-minute rule bill, Mr Cohen - MP for Leyton and Wanstead - said sleepwalking as a defence against rape should be removed from the 2003 Sexual Offences Act.

"Sleepwalking is not a reasonable excuse for an acquittal," he said.

"It is not right that the rapist walks free. If a rape has been committed, a guilty verdict should be delivered."

Prosecutors are finding it difficult to secure rape convictions when the defence of sleepwalking is used, he said, meaning that fewer cases were likely to be brought to court in future.

Mr Cohen said it had become too common for rape suspects to claim they were asleep while having sex as mitigation for their actions.

Those committing rape while asleep were still "a danger to the public" and acquitting them increased the trauma for their victims.

"I am concerned about the current precedent," he said. "Anyone up in court on a rape charge could get a few friends and family to claim they sleepwalk and they almost certainly will get off."

Intent

Under the MP's Bill, judges would be able to take the fact that someone was sleepwalking into account when passing sentence but not to acquit them.

There must be clear evidence to substantiate the claim that the conduct was involuntary and unintentional
Ministry of Justice

In a statement, the Ministry of Justice said proving someone's conduct was intentional and voluntary must remain the crucial test in securing a conviction.

"The government recognises incidents like this cause emotional and physical harm to the victim," it said.

"There must be clear evidence to substantiate the claim that the conduct was involuntary and unintentional."

Experts have argued that a small percentage of adult sleepwalkers do engage in sexual behaviour.

Although it passed unopposed on its first reading, Mr Cohen's Bill is unlikely to become law because of a lack of parliamentary time.

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