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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Rape victims' struggle for justice
The legal system is failing victims
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By Danny Shaw
BBC home affairs correspondent

The report into rape prosecutions confirms what victims of sexual assault and campaigners for their cause have been saying for some time: the system is loaded against them.

The inspectors... said the entire process needed tightening up and sharpening

From the second a rape allegation is made to the moment a verdict is delivered rape victims face a struggle for justice which compounds the ordeal they have already been through.

The starkest indication of this is given by figures showing that in 1999 only one in 13 reported allegations resulted in a conviction, compared to one in three in 1977.

This decline - described as "shocking" by the report's authors - forms the "raison d'etre" of the study. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers.

Problems encountered

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, who compiled the report, analysed 1,741 crime records from ten police forces, and examined hundreds of prosecution files.

Increasing people's confidence in the system was essential

Report's inspectors

They interviewed staff involved in the criminal justice system and sexual assault centres.

In their 110-page report, the inspectors made 21 major recommendations.

They found problems at every stage of the process.

When victims first report a rape, some faced an "inordinate delay" before they were attended to.

Waiting areas in many police stations were of "poor quality", and there were too few trained staff to help them.

Crucial evidence

One area of particular concern to the inspectors was the standard of Forensic Medical Examiners (FMEs) - doctors, mainly GPs, who take samples from the victims.

The report says although their role was "pivotal" in the evidence-gathering process, they were "conspicuously absent from the training loop".

Inspectors revealed that 82 per cent of FMEs were men, despite the fact that victims prefer to be dealt with by women.

In one instance, insensitive comments made by one male FME contributed to the female victim withdrawing her consent to the examination, with the potential loss of evidence.

The report acknowledges the difficulties faced by police and prosecutors during rape investigations.

In most cases, the accused is known to the victim, there may not be medical evidence, there are unlikely to be independent witnesses and the case hinges around the issue of consent.


But the inspectors say prosecutors should take a more pro-active approach to find evidence to support an allegation and - most controversially - they suggest that specialist lawyers should oversee rape cases.

Prosecutors who wish to discontinue a case should seek a second opinion before doing so.

At trial - where seven in 10 rape suspects are acquitted - the report found that victims were often left waiting for long periods and were not informed about the progress of the case.

In the witness box, they were subjected to excessive cross-examination by defence lawyers and prosecutors were "inconsistent" in the steps they took to stop upsetting and intrusive interrogation about the victim's sexual history.

The inspectors who carried out the report said the entire process needed "tightening up and sharpening", though there was no need for a major cultural shift as there was in the late 1970s.

Increasing people's confidence in the system was essential, they said.

But anyone who has read this thorough and illuminating document cannot help but feel that a concerted effort by everyone involved at each stage of the system is required if that is ever to happen.

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