Crisis talks on fall in rape convictions

TOP lawyers from across the UK were meeting in the Capital today in a bid to tackle the falling rate of convictions in rape cases.

Senior prosecutors were gathering to tackle the difficulties of handling rape investigations and trials in the first conference of its kind.

They were due to be joined by Solicitor General for England and Wales Harriet Harman and Elish Angiolini, Solicitor General for Scotland.

The forum at the Scottish Parliament was also talking about ways to improve the experience of rape victims in the criminal justice system.

Among the ideas they will consider is the setting-up of specialist centres to deal with the victims of rape.

There are 12 such centres in England and Wales, which are run by the health service and collect forensic information in a sympathetic environment, but none have been set up in Scotland.

The talks come as recent figures revealed that conviction rates for rape in Lothian and Borders had plummeted by half in a single year.

Official statistics released by the Scottish Executive in December last year showed the success rate for rape and attempted rape prosecutions dropped from 79 per cent to just 40 per cent - well below the national average of 60 per cent.

Across Scotland, the percentage of sex offence cases brought to court which resulted in a conviction also fell by nine per cent in five years.

Lawyers attending the conference from Scotland’s Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and England and Wales’ Crown Prosecution Service were set to discuss ways to reverse this trend.

Ms Angiolini, who is conducting a wide-ranging review of the approach of Scottish prosecutors to rape and sexual offences, said that the event was to "learn from best practice across the UK" and improve the experience of victims across both jurisdictions.

Ms Angiolini: "Victims of rape and sexual offences in particular need to have confidence not only that their cases will be handled efficiently and effectively, in the public interest, but also that they will be treated with respect and dignity at every point in the process."

Ms Harman admitted that rapes were less likely to result in convictions than other serious crimes and said today’s conference was a vital chance to tackle the problem.

She said: "Although the number of rapes reported to the police has increased dramatically over the years, it is clear that very many rape victims still don’t go to the police or, if they do, find themselves unable to go through with the court proceedings in which they will usually be the most important witness.

"Rape is still less likely to be reported, less likely to result in a charge, and less likely to be prosecuted than other serious crimes. That’s why our discussions today are so important.

"We are in different jurisdictions, but we have the same commitment to take rape allegations seriously and encourage victims to come forward and get the support they need.

"By sharing our information and experience, learning from each other, we can continue to improve our response and ensure we meet victims’ needs."

While in Edinburgh, Ms Harman was also due to visit the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s victim information and advice office.

In Lothian and Borders, the conviction rate for rape and attempted rape rose from 57 per cent in 1999 to 71 per cent the following year and climbed again to 79 per cent in 2001 before falling to just 40 per cent in 2002.

That means while 15 of the 19 cases taken to court in 2001 ended with a guilty verdict, in 2002 just eight out of 20 cases resulted in a conviction.

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