The jury's still out on hopes of rape victims for justice

IT has been specially designed to resemble a normal living room with comfortable furniture and low-key decor rather than the inside of a police station.

For many women reporting a rape in the Capital, the facility is where they will first recount details of the attack to specially trained officers from the Amethyst sex crimes team.

The rape suite at the unit's west Edinburgh base was created so traumatised victims could be interviewed with as much sensitivity as possible.

It's here that officers gain as much evidence as they can to present in court, something they did 170 times in 2007/08. It is a time-consuming and complicated procedure, and one which new figures suggest is more often than not in vain.

Of those 170 cases, only 17 reached the inside of a court room in the Lothians, and just five saw the attacker found guilty.

It is a common story. In the last nine years in the Lothians, there were 1546 police reports over alleged rapes handed over to the procurator fiscal but ultimately only 65 people were jailed – four per cent of the total number accused.

The number of prosecutions for rapes compared with the alleged crimes remains low, with Scotland showing one of the worst records in Europe.

Tory Lothians MSP Gavin Brown said: "These figures are shocking and a clear demonstration that far too few victims are getting the justice that they deserve.

"It is of little surprise that many instances go unreported and that itself is also a massive worry. The effects on the victim must be absolutely devastating."

More than a year ago, the Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, told a Rape Crisis Scotland conference that the country's rape laws were "among the most restrictive in the western world".

This started a massive overhaul of the sexual offences laws in Scotland which has sparked debate among legal experts.

Unveiled a year ago, the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill is currently making its way through parliament. Based on proposals from the Scottish Law Commission published in December 2007, it replaces the common-law offence of rape with a broader statutory offence of a requirement for "reasonable" consent.

The new law specifies that there is no consent if someone is "incapable of giving consent" through intoxication with alcohol or any other substance or if the victim is asleep or unconscious.

At present, an accused person must merely have an "honest or genuine" belief that a victim consented. In future, that must be a "reasonable" belief. It would not be enough that an accused in a rape case should be able to maintain that they had an "honest" belief in the victim's consent if that is not a reasonable belief.

To aid juries, a list of scenarios where consent cannot be said to have been given would also be provided. In the past, juries have sometimes concluded that a woman gave implied "consent" to sex merely by wearing provocative clothes or taking a man back to her room.

But Rape Crisis Scotland said it was worried by the introduction into law of the concept of "prior consent" to sex.

Spokeswoman Sandy Brindley said: "If these provisions become law, there is a strong possibility that the Crown will also have to prove that the complainer didn't previously give consent. The notion that someone can give advance consent to sex at 6pm and that this consent should still apply at 1am when they are incapable of giving meaningful consent is absurd

."

Rape Crisis Scotland has maintained that an independent inquiry is needed to ensure every aspect of the system – from the police to the courts – was no longer failing victims. The Crown Office has carried out a detailed review into rape prosecution, while the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland undertook its own investigation. Both produced a list of recommendations which are being implemented. For example, prosecutors and fiscal service staff in Scotland have been undertaking training to boost the chances of rapes being successfully prosecuted.

By this summer, it is hoped that every Crown Office representative will have to complete the training before they can take charge of a rape prosecution.

Legal experts have argued that more needs to be done, and say a vast number of rape victims will continue to be denied justice unless the requirement for corroboration – two separate sources of evidence, for instance the victim's statement and forensic evidence – is removed.

Indeed, Ms Angiolini suggested the need for corroboration should be watered down to boost the number of rape convictions while speaking at a major conference on sexual offences last year.

Others in the legal profession are not so keen on the weakening of a central pillar of Scottish law, adding that such a revamped system would result in more wrongful convictions.

A Crown Office spokeswoman said: "The prosecution of rape presents specific challenges in Scotland due to the narrow definition of rape and the fact that it requires corroborated evidence.

"A number of strategies which aim to improve conviction rates in sexual offences are currently being pursued."

Whether the proposed changes will lead to an increase in convictions in the Lothians, the jury is still out.

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