JURIES should be given advice about the common misconceptions of rape at the start of trials to help avoid confusion, two senior legal figures have said.
Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Martin Hewitt, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead for adult sex offences, have called for judges to warn juries about “myths and stereotypes” people have about rape before they can hear any evidence.
The two experts are heading a task force to investigate the fall in numbers of successful rape prosecutions and what can be done to reverse the trend.
There were 2,300 rape convictions in 2013, compared to 2,433 in 2010, according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, while 129 fewer rape suspects were convicted in 2013 than in 2012.
Last week shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said there had been a 7 per cent drop in the number of sex cases taken to court in the last 15 months, during a time when sex offences reported to the police rose by 16 per cent.
In an interview with The Independent, Ms Saunders and Mr Hewitt said it was vital for judges to address the realities about rape at the very start of a trial.
Common misconceptions can lead to juries deciding rape has not occurred if a victim was drunk at the time, had previously consensual relations with the perpetrator or basing their views on a victim’s sexual history.
Leaving such advice to the end, when a judge is summing up a case, is too late, they said, as juries often make up their minds during the course of a trial.
Ms Saunders called for judges to address the jury about a victim’s background or behaviour at the start of a trial, following the example last year of Judge Peter Rook, who warned jurors not to be swayed by such things at the start of a trial in an Oxford grooming case, in which all five defendants were subsequently convicted of extreme sexual abuse.
Ms Saunders said: “There is lots of really good practice now, so the judge gives the jury directions on myths and stereotypes. But, what normally happens is that they’re given at the end of the case when the jury is just about to go out and deliberate.
“All of us are human - you’re going to hear the evidence, you’re going to make a judgment and then you’re told to set your judgment aside and (are told by the judge) these are the things you should be taking into account - actually it’s better to hear that at the beginning.”
Mr Hewitt called for a re-examination of the experience of the trial process to focus on the victim, to encourage people to come forward to report that they have been raped.
He told the newspaper: “I feel we do need to take a look at ourselves, how we deal with this and whether all victims of rape are able to achieve access to justice. And I don’t know that that is the case (at the moment).”
The pair appealed for funding for victim support services that help rape victims through the court process not to be cut, saying it can have a direct impact on conviction rates.
They also said it was vital that the way the CPS and police work together in rape cases is standardised across the country, and that police and prosecutors are not being prejudiced in any decisions that they made.
Ms Saunders and Mr Hewitt said they plan to publish new guidance on the handling of rape cases by police and prosecutors later this year.