Page last updated at 15:00 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

Stern review calls for focus on care of rape victims

Rape victim in specialist clinic (posed by a model)
Moment of contact: Review looked at how victims were treated

A new approach is needed to give greater priority to the care and support of rape victims, a major review in England and Wales has said.

The review's author, crossbench peer Baroness Stern, said debate had been too focused on rape conviction rates.

Her recommendations include offering every rape victim a specialist adviser to help them recover after an attack.

The report acknowledged attitudes and practices had improved but said implementation had been patchy.

During her five-month study, Lady Stern talked to more than 200 people, including rape victims and police officers, to find out how police and prosecutors deal with complaints of rape.

Seven years ago, Gabrielle reported an attempted rape. It was 688 days before her attacker was convicted.

Her treatment by police and authorities left her feeling like "a piece of evidence, not a person".

She said although the initial police response was quick and the offender arrested promptly, there were failings.

The police medical officer did not carry out an internal or lower body examination and she had to identify her attacker using a system which showed only his head and neck.

At one stage, her attacker was jailed for robbery and the police asked whether she still wanted to continue her case.

She said she felt she was "at the bottom of the pile". Her case officer said she was because her attacker was already behind bars.

Gabrielle tried her local MP and even Met Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens before her case was properly pursued.

Her attacker was convicted on a lesser charge of serious sexual assault.

It follows the conviction of two high profile sex attackers - London taxi driver John Worboys, who drugged and raped his victims, and Kirk Reid, thought to have sexually assaulted dozens of women in south London.

Lady Stern, a prisons reformer, said support and care for victims should be given as high a priority as prosecution and conviction of perpetrators.

It was also "completely unacceptable" for police and prosecutors to lose interest in a victim whose complaint was not going to lead to a conviction, she said.

"The obligations the state has to those who have suffered a violent crime, and a crime that strikes at the whole concept of human dignity and bodily integrity, are much wider than working for the conviction of a perpetrator," she said.

"The victim must be treated as a whole person. With rape, it is always going to be difficult to be sure that you'll be able to prove it to the jury beyond reasonable doubt.

"I talked to a lot of victims and they accepted that. What they felt was really important was not in the end if they could get a conviction; what they said was, we still feel we want to be believed."

Lisa Longstaff, from campaign group Women Against Rape, said police must focus on justice.

"Women do not go to the police to get care, they go to the police to get protection and justice. In 2010, respect and sensitivity for victims should be a given."

Solicitor Debaleena Dasgupta, who deals with mishandled rape cases, said good care was as important as getting a conviction.

She added that an arrest and conviction "can be very helpful to a victim because they need to know the authorities are taking the matter very seriously and are putting together the best case possible".

'Abysmal' treatment

Other key recommendations outlined in the report include:

• A network of independent professional advisers to support a victim after she or he comes forward. Their role would be to explain police procedures, provide a link between the victim and detectives, and support the victim in court. Similar schemes have been piloted in some parts of England and Wales

• Forensic medical evidence should be gathered by the NHS, not the police

• The expansion of Sexual Abuse Referral Centres (Sarcs) to every police force in England and Wales by 2011. At these centres, victims receive counselling and other help, including medical examinations, without having to speak to the police

• Consideration of proposals for victims to have their own special lawyer in court, alongside the prosecutor and defendant's representative

The report said the claim only 6% of rapes lead to a conviction was misleading because it was based on all complaints to police, not all complaints brought to court. Nearly 60% of those charged with rape are convicted.

Graphic showing methods of calculating rape convictions

Lady Stern was also critical of the treatment victims of alleged rape received from police and prosecutors.

She said while victims in some areas received the best possible support, in other areas they were treated abysmally.

One woman called Gabrielle, who reported an attempted rape in 2003, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I was treated worse than something you accidentally tread on.

"Victims need to be treated as a human being first and a piece of evidence second."

Another woman, who spoke to the BBC anonymously, said the police did not seem interested when she told them she had been raped by a man she was in a relationship with.

"I felt I was a thorn in their side. They did not really want to bother with you because it was too difficult. They would much rather deal with the crimes that they can quickly tick the box and move on."

'Dignity and respect'

For the government, Solicitor General Vera Baird said much had already been improved in combating rape.

"Public perception of the way rape complaints are handled lags behind reality," she said.

She welcomed the report's acknowledgement that significant improvements have made since 1997, but said work remains to be done.

"We want all victims to feel confident that when they come forward and report rapes it will be taken seriously and they will be treated with dignity and respect," she added.

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ITN Call for more advisers for rape victims - 29 hrs ago
Yahoo! UK and Ireland 'Specialist advisers' urged for rape victims - 33 hrs ago
Reuters UK Conviction rates "confuse debate" on rape - 34 hrs ago
Sky News Rape Review Calls For More Victim Support - 34 hrs ago
New StatesmanRape victim support is as important as conviction rates, says Stern - 35 hrs ago
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