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Rape and Sexual Offences

Woman with head in hand
BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 18 March 1600 GMT
On Radio 4 and online

How is the low conviction rate for rape being addressed by the criminal justice system, and what further reforms should be made?

Only 5.7% of rape complaints reported to the police result in a conviction. For many that's a shocking figure.

Law In Action spoke to several women who had been raped, but whose attackers were not prosecuted. The reasons why their cases didn't get to court were varied.

In two of the cases, the women were drugged, so had little memory of the events. In others, the attackers claimed their victims had consented.

Kirsty Brimelow, a criminal barrister, explains why prosecuting rape is different from prosecuting almost any other crime.


Often one of the critical factors in prosecuting cases is the efficient collection of forensic scientific evidence.

There are twenty Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) across England and Wales, and the government is planning to open a further eighteen this year.

These are victim-centred facilities where complainants can get support and counselling. But crucially, they are also facilities where the doctors are trained to collect and preserve DNA evidence.

Linda Pressly visited one of the London SARCs.


In order to make the prosecution of rape cases more professional, the Crown Prosecution Service in London has recently appointed three specialist rape advocates.

The idea is that just one advocate will handle a case from the time a complaint is made, right through to appearing before a jury if the case goes to court.

Clive Coleman secured rare access to one of the advocates, Sarah Le Foe. He spent the morning with her as she is briefed by both the police and a colleague.


There is a good deal of argument about what more needs to be done to improve the system. Some argue that once a case gets to court there is not a significant problem with prosecutions, because over 50% of defendants are convicted.

But the government has concerns about what happens in court. The Solicitor General has recently set up a panel of experts to explore whether juries should be given more information about rape.

Dr Louise Ellison - who is on the panel - debates the issue with barrister, Anthony Heaton-Armstrong.

The programme provoked some strong responses from our listeners. Here are some comments:

If a man says a woman consented to intercourse, he does NOT accuse her of any crime. Even if he did, thus cast a reflection upon her character as indeed some years ago it might have, that would not justify any deviation from the principle that a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Thus the burden should be upon the woman to prove that she did not consent, and NOT upon the man to prove that she did.

Peter Moore

As I understand it, rape is a crime of specific intent, in which the defendant must have actually intended to commit the crime in order to be convicted of it. Mere recklessness is not enough and if the jury in a rape case feel the defendant acted recklessly but had no actual intention of committing rape, they have to acquit altogether. This is quite different to murder (also a crime of specific intent), where the jury can convict a reckless defendant of manslaughter instead. Has there been any serious consideration of introducing a lesser offence than rape which would function as the equivalent of manslaughter?

Matthew Hill

Rape convictions... big problem. I personally was told by a rape crisis centre years ago not to even bother going to the police because I had no evidence or witnesses. But I think that women should be encouraged to go anyway, at least to get their side of the story listened to. And who knows, maybe someone else will complain about the same person. I think we need more public awareness about what actually consititutes rape and sexual abuse. In my own case, I was only a teenager and thought that it was just OK for a man to have sex with me if he wanted to. I'd never recieved much information about rape. So getting out information about rape and sexual abuse is really important, especially to young teenagers and even children.


If there is one thing I believe would be effective in achieving more convictions for rape it would be to require any person sitting on a rape jury to have sat in and listened in Court to at least 2 other rape cases as training for potential rape jury service. This is because if they did so they would see and hear defence barristers 'on stage,' trotting out the same defence,sometimes almost word for word, with the poisoned chalice of doubt being carefully dropped in at the same points of evidence in each case.

Mrs. E. Pope

On your show about I heard a woman lawyer say she 'had no evidence' that false allegations of rape were frequently made by women. Your moderator let that doublespeak claim go unchallenged. I guess that's because you haven't done your research or your homework well enough to pull her up. For if you contact any group that supports men equally with women you would find ample evidence of false allegations by women in all gender-related cases.

Francis Fuchs

The release of the man's name immediately, whilst the woman's name is withheld is woefully inequitable. I believe the names of both parties should be withheld from the public domain until after the verdict. Then if guilty, the man's name would be published similarly if not guilty if, in the judge's opinion, there was a case to answer the man's name could be released. Similarly, but perhaps more rarely the woman's name could be released if there was no case to answer or if the judge's opinion was that the evidence was fanciful, vexatious or scurrilous.

Jeremy Puckett

If you have thoughts on any of the topics we've covered, or any other legal issues, Law In Action would like to hear from you.

You can contact us by email at or by post at Law in Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS or you can call us on 020 8752 5646.

Law In Action was broadcast on Tuesday 18 March 2008 at 1600 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

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