Legal representation for rape victims should be explored to counter the unfairness in the adversarial system felt by many, Baroness Stern said in her independent review into how rape complaints are handled, published today.
‘Victims often feel that the court system is unfair because they do not have their own lawyer to represent their interests,’ said Stern.
‘The complainant sees the defence lawyer rightly doing everything they can for the defendant, and they often wonder why they don’t have someone to represent them and ask "why am I on my own?"’
Stern said the government should examine whether rape victims should have their own legal representation. The review looked at arrangements in Ireland and France, where victims can be represented for parts of proceedings. Stern said the English system of law does not allow for victims to be represented, but said: ‘I don’t see why our legal system shouldn’t evolve.’
The independent review, which was commissioned by the Home Office, made 23 recommendations to improve the way rape cases are dealt with. These included removing conflicting performance targets for the police and Crown Prosecution Service, which it said act as a barrier to effective joint working and distort outcomes.
Stern explained that the police work towards one set of targets, which require them to charge a certain number of suspects, while the CPS’s ‘unsuccessful outcomes’ target requires them to attain a certain level of convictions, which can have a bearing on the cases they decide to prosecute.
‘Targets are very bad things for law enforcement agencies. They shouldn’t have them. Instead they should work together and make sensible decisions in each case,’ said Stern.
The review found there were serious concerns that the poor quality of the video-recorded evidence of complainants was hindering trials. ‘Achieving best evidence’ interviews, which enable the complainant to give evidence via video, were introduced in 2003.
But Stern said some of the recordings were often very badly done, which ‘does no favours to the complainants or the jury’. The review recommends the practice be reviewed to find a solution that preserves the benefits for the victim but is more effective in the courtroom.
The report said the CPS had made many changes in its practice in recent years to secure more convictions in rape cases, with special prosecutors in all 42 CPS areas, but it found that cases were not always properly prepared.
In particular concerns were raised about failure to disclose information to the defence, which meant that when the information was revealed during the trial, which the defence quite properly sought to use in cross-examination, the prosecution and complainant were not prepared to deal with it.
The report recommended that the Association of Chief Police Officers, the CPS and the Local Government Association liaised to resolve difficulties about disclosure of local authority third-party material, that might for instance reveal information about the past sexual history of complainants and whether they had made allegations of rape before.
Stern said concern over the conviction rate for rape has ‘taken over the debate to the detriment of other important outcomes for victims’. She called for an end to the widespread use of misleading rape conviction data.
Stern said the 6% figure often attached to the conviction rate for rape is not calculated in the same way as for other crimes. She said the actual rate of conviction for the crime was 55%.
Among the other recommendations were proposals for a study on the frequency of false allegations of rape compared to other offences; a greater focus on victim care giving all complainants access to an independent sexual violence advisor; and giving young people more information about the law on rape.
Stern also told the Gazette that the anonymity of defendants was a ‘live issue’ that required further debate, though its consideration had not been within the review’s terms of reference.
Overall, the review found that the policies in place for dealing with rape complaints were adequate, but there were failures to implement them.
‘During my review I came across many examples of every best practice – what we need is for this best practice to be found everywhere so that every man or woman who reports a rape is properly supported,’ said Stern.
Sarah Jane Gallagher, the chief crown prosecutor lead on prosecuting rape, said: ‘The CPS welcomes Baroness Stern’s acknowledgement of the commitment and drive of our specialist rape prosecutors, and her endorsement of our rape policy, which aims to ensure that rape cases are dealt with appropriately, sensitively and robustly.
‘We accept all of Baroness Stern’s recommendations and will continue to step up efforts to ensure that victim care is a priority, and that our policies are translated into reality for victims and witnesses.
‘Improving our performance in this important area of work will be a priority for us in the year ahead.’