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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 February 2008, 07:06 GMT
Continuing struggle over rape cases
Anonymous rape victim
There is huge concern about low rape conviction rates
On Saturday, the campaign group Women Against Rape (WAR) will stage The Rape of Justice - Who's Guilty?

Women are invited to speak at the "public trial" about their experiences of sexual violence.

But the event is designed to highlight the low conviction rate for rape.

In the 30 years that WAR have been campaigning, there have been changes in the way both the victim and the crime of rape itself is treated.

For instance, in 1991, rape within marriage became a crime. The 2003 Sexual Offences Act clarified the law, giving consent a legal definition in England and Wales.

With the help of WAR, in 1995 two women who worked as prostitutes won a private prosecution against a serial rapist after the Crown Prosecution Service refused to prosecute the case. The rapist was sentenced to 11 years.

And the police have been given new measures. Assistant Commissioner John Yates, from the Metropolitan Police, says he believes the police are tackling rape.

We want to see the procedures and practices that have been agreed to being properly implemented
Lisa Longstaff, WAR

"We constantly are training our forensics and some really innovative work around those issues which says we've got the best chance possible.

"We've got more work to do across the country to raise standards and keep that focus on this dreadful crime."

There are 19 sexual referral centres in England and Wales, with 17 more promised, that provide specialised help and support to victims.

Project Sapphire, set up in 2000, operates in London boroughs to investigate sexual crimes and support victims.

Gap or Chasm?

Despite all this, the conviction rate is appallingly low.

There were 820 convictions recorded for rape in 2005/6, up from 618 in 1997.

It means only 5.7% of reported rapes end in a conviction. Why?

In 2005, a Home Office report A Gap or a Chasm? highlighted some campaigners' concerns: there was an over-estimation of the scale of false allegations by both police officers and prosecutors "which feeds into a culture of scepticism".

RAPE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT
The majority of perpetrators are known to the victim
97% of callers to Rape Crisis Lines knew their assailant prior to the assault
During 2001 it is estimated there were 190,000 incidents of serious sexual assault and 47,000 female victims of rape/attempted rape
Home Office figures show that police recorded 12,630 female rapes in 2006-7
Data from Children and Women Abuse Studies Unit and Home Office

It stated: "The criminal justice system needs to shift from a focus on the discreditability of complainants to enhanced evidence gathering and case-building."

As WAR holds its "public trial", the group has written an open letter to the solicitor-general, Vera Baird, saying that it believes too little is being done to prosecute rapists.

"The blame does not lie with juries but with professionals not doing their jobs," the letter states.

"We want to see the procedures and practices that have been agreed to being properly implemented," says Lisa Longstaff, from WAR.

We are determined that all parts of the criminal justice system work together to ensure that the cases that come before the courts are as strong as possible and are prosecuted as strongly as possible
Vera Baird, Solicitor-General

"There have been these changes, more and more women reporting crimes, but when they go to authorities to get protection and justice, the people responsible are not doing their job properly."

The group is calling on the heads of organisations to make sure workers within the system are "called to account".

It says it has received complaints from women who have been let down by the very specialists who should be working to help them. It says CCTV and phone evidence is not being collected, witnesses not spoken to.

"If the basic evidence is not there and the work is not done by the barrister - you are not going to get a conviction," Ms Longstaff explains.

And the group accuses prosecutors of turning down cases on the "flimsiest excuse" and that "sexism appears to be institutionalised in the criminal justice system".

'Strong as possible'

The government agrees the conviction rate is unacceptable. But it says it is taking steps: specialist rape prosecutors are in place and specialist training provided to police, prosecutors and barristers, for instance.

New measures, following a consultation carried out in 2006, including the right for juries to hear the psychological reactions of rape victims have been proposed.

The director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, says he realises too many cases have been rejected too early, and has made it a priority to tackle the low rate of rape prosecutions.

Solicitor-General Vera Baird points to the way the government has changed the law on rape, adding that there is commitment to the police and CPS working together to build better cases.

She cites the Sexual Offences Act 2003, saying that more relevant evidence can be heard by the jury and that there are tougher sentences for those convicted.

She says: "We are determined that all parts of the criminal justice system work together to ensure that the cases that come before the courts are as strong as possible and are prosecuted as strongly as possible."



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