Rape convictions: juries are not to blame, biased investigations and prosecutions are

MP Anne Coffey got a lot of publicity last week when she said in Parliament that juries in rape trials should be abolished, arguing that this is the solution to the low conviction rate. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-46288114

We strongly disagree. Juries are not to blame for the falling conviction rate. Negligent and biased investigations and prosecutions are. These are compounded by economic policies which have downgraded the whole justice process and made women in particular more vulnerable.

Abolishing juries for such a serious crime would be a dangerous precedent.

We have heard the argument against juries before from people who refuse to acknowledge or address the systemic prejudices built into investigations and prosecutions that result in so few convictions. We have said for years that the conviction rate reflects the criminal justice system’s refusal to prosecute rape and, when it does, to prosecute thoroughly. Juries are a convenient scapegoat to point the finger at.

The following changes are urgently needed:

– Thorough, unbiased investigations by police, ensuring all the available evidence is gathered and assessed. In our experience, this is often lacking. The John Worboys scandal is one glaring example: the investigation into the serial attacker was so negligent that his victims won damages from the Met under the Human Rights Act. (See more at Supreme Court today and ‘Why do the police deal with rape cases so badly?’)

– The prosecution case put to the court must also be thorough and unbiased, and any evidence of domestic violence must be included. In many cases, especially of domestic rape, evidence and charges are narrowed down, making cases less truthful and compelling. Charges of common assault used in DV cases cannot be brought after six months but investigations often take much longer – this limitation must be dropped as it weakens the overall case.

– Judge and prosecutor must protect the victim from unfair and irrelevant questioning in court, particularly about sexual history.

– The law must be changed to ban ‘evidence’ of a victim’s sexual history with men other than the accused. This is key as women’s credibility continues to be trashed by defence barristers cross examining on totally irrelevant sexual history. This sexist practice has been reinforced and extended this year as the authorities have insisted that police must trawl through victims’ phone and social media history. This is a disastrous step backwards, and we hope a legal challenge to it will help to protect the rights of victims.

Instead of addressing these very basic problems, and making rape a genuine priority for the criminal justice authorities, juries are being blamed. They are not the problem, the professionals who gather and present the evidence and direct the case are: police, prosecutors and judges were shown to be institutionally sexist for decades – they have not shifted as much as they are given credit for. They continue to downgrade investigations and prosecutions, and to find ways to excuse rape and domestic violence.

The proof that abolishing juries is not the solution is the family court. There are no jurors in family courts and judges there are some of the worst offenders when it comes to disbelieving women victims of rape and domestic violence. Reporting DV and/or rape more than once is routinely used to assume victims are lying; yet evidence shows that DV and domestic rape are serial crimes and that women who have been identified as vulnerable are more likely to be targeted again and again by the same man as well as by others.

Adding insult to injury, austerity cuts which have overwhelmingly targeted women and children are making us even more vulnerable to violence and cutting off our escape routes, including our access to protection and justice through the courts. Universal Credit which is paid to the head of the household was designed to ‘strengthen the family unit’ i.e. men’s power and control over women and children. These cuts must be reversed and women’s entitlement to justice reinstated.