THE conviction rate for rape in Scotland is virtually the lowest in the western world. As if this was not a disgrace, the rate of convictions has been falling steadily. In today's Scotsman we publish the latest figure: a mere 3.9 per cent of rapes reported in 2005-6 ended in conviction - and the vast majority of rapes are never reported.
The situation in Scotland stands in stark contrast to that in the rest of Europe. According to the latest Home Office study, "the only country with a lower conviction rate was Ireland". In fact, a majority of rape prosecutions result in convictions in Finland, Germany and Iceland - hardly countries where the rule of law has been suspended.
At first sight, the Scottish rape conviction rate appears not very different from the UK average - which is bad enough - of around 6 per cent. But the majority of regions south of the Border have a higher conviction rate than Scotland. Indeed, Cumbria, Northamptonshire, South Wales, Bedfordshire, Durham, North Yorkshire and South Yorkshire all have conviction rates running at twice or more the Scottish performance.
This strongly suggests that whatever problems exist at a UK level in achieving convictions, there is a desperate and signal failure in the local Scottish system of justice in regard to these crimes. It is also totally unacceptable that a victim's chances of attaining justice should depend largely on where they live. The way in which rape victims are treated in Scotland was re-examined by the Lord Advocate in 2002 after a teenage girl committed suicide following a hearing in which she was forced to give harrowing evidence to a jury. But the fall in convictions proves that such reforms are not getting to the heart of the matter.
For instance, research at Aberdeen University has found that rape cases in Scottish courts are typically adjourned more often than cases involving murder, drugs or any other crime. This is a delaying tactic which unnerves the victim. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland has called for the introduction of specialist rape prosecutors as employed in the United States, where a majority of prosecutions end in conviction. Special rape prosecutors might help reduce the use of such procedural manoeuvres.
But we also need to make a major effort to change underlying social attitudes in Scotland, which still tend to blame rape on the victim. That is why a new campaign by the Rape Crisis Centre Scotland is so important. This is based on a successful American model, which used advertising to attack the prevailing (if generally unstated) view that women provoke sexual assaults on themselves by the way they dress or drink.
Rape is always a crime. But in today's Scotland, it is going largely unpunished.