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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 04:13 GMT 05:13 UK
Court system cause for change

By Danny Shaw
BBC home affairs correspondent

The Crown Prosecution Service is launching new rules to improve the way rape cases are handled.

It has been well-documented that only a fraction of alleged rapes result in conviction.

Old Bailey Number One No1 court
New specialist prosecutors will tackle problems in court
A research study, published in April 2002, suggested that the proportion was about one in 13.

Other studies have indicated that it could be even smaller - if you include the number of allegations that never even get reported to the police.

Of course there may be a small number of allegations that turn out to be false or malicious.

But the experience of women who have been through the process of reporting sexual assaults, making statements and giving evidence suggests the system itself is the main reason for the low conviction rate.

So one of the key issues for the attorney general and the director of public prosecutions has been to make procedures fairer for victims so that they feel more confident to report crimes to police and testify in court.

The standard of rape prosecutions has remained a cause for concern
Danny Shaw
The police have done their bit: in the 1980s and 90s there was a significant shift in the way officers dealt with rape cases. Specialist rape suites were set up and victims were taken more seriously.

In the last few years there have been more sexual assault referral centres set up.

They are run independently of the police and help victims who mistrust the authorities or are not sure that they want to make an official rape complaint.

The result has been that the message that rape victims will be treated properly appears to be getting through with an increase in the overall number of reported rapes.

But the standard of rape prosecutions has remained a cause for concern.

Rape cases require great sensitivity on the part of lawyers.

High standards

Experience and determination may be called for if the evidence is weak; a barrister with a strong presence in front of a judge and jury may be required if the defence employ bullying tactics.

So the appointment of specialist prosecutors to handle cases from start to finish will go some way to addressing those difficulties, as will the new policy to ensure that only the most senior barristers take charge.

There is also to be a new effort on gathering supporting evidence where the case depends on the word of the victim. That may boost the number of successful prosecutions.

If the victim pulls out of the case, or refuses to testify, an investigation is to be carried out into the reasons why. It could be that the alleged perpetrator is applying pressure on the victim to withdraw her allegation.

Much of what is in the new CPS policy has already been implemented. But it is a clear and unequivocal declaration of the high standards that witnesses and victims can expect and deserve.


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