Leader comment: Overhaul of forensic services must be a priority

The very least we can do is ensure that victims of sexual crime are given prompt access to examinations in suitable surroundings.
The very least we can do is ensure that victims of sexual crime are given prompt access to examinations in suitable surroundings.
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One of the black marks against Scotland’s criminal justice system is the number of convictions for rape and attempted rape.

Official statistics show that, last year, there was a 16 per cent drop in convictions for the offences. Perhaps just as worryingly, the number of cases prosecuted also fell from 270 in 2014-15 to 216 in 2015-16.

As is often pointed out by services which help victims, rape is a crime which can take a great deal of courage to report, with survivors often left distraught once they learn that their case is not proceeding to court.

It should be incumbent on every authority concerned to arrest and ultimately reverse this trend in order to give victims confidence that they will be listened to, and see that justice will be served.

However, a damning new report makes clear that, even at a basic level, not enough is being done to meet the needs of victims of sexual crime.

A review by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) has identified “significant variations” in the quality and availability of forensic medical services for victims across Scotland, with some services described as “unacceptable”.

The report is especially critical of how adult victims continue to undergo examinations at police buildings in many areas of Scotland, an approach it said was neither “victim-centred” or “effective practice”.

A lack of availability of services, meanwhile, meant that there are delays in certain areas, with some victims forced to make lengthy journeys, despite the fact they can be asked not to wash for a day or more after an assault takes place.

Gill Imery, assistant inspector of constabulary at HMICS, who led the review, said investment is needed to address the current “disparity” in forensic healthcare services across the country.

It should be noted that considerable effort has gone into trying to improve both conviction rates and services for rape victims, and, compared to a generation ago, there has been significant progress. But this report offers ample evidence that there is much work still to be done.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs yesterday that the report was “not good enough” and said there will be a ministerial statement to address the issues raised. An implementation group, chaired by Scotland’s chief medical officer, will also take forward improvements to the provision of health services for rape victims.

That is an encouraging sign, but the government’s response must be comprehensive and take on board a series of recommendations made in the review.

The current postcode lottery is shameful and damaging to the criminal justice system. The very least we can do is ensure that victims of sexual crime are given prompt access to examinations in suitable surroundings. Rape has a devastating impact on the lives of its victims. There is simply no excuse for victims’ suffering to continue.