Leader comment: Rape conviction figures offer good and bad news

Edinburgh Sheriff Court. File picture: Ian Georgeson
Edinburgh Sheriff Court. File picture: Ian Georgeson
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When the latest figures were released by the Scottish Government for domestic abuse and sexual offences yesterday, there was one in particular which stood out.

The new statistics revealed a 40 per cent rise in the number of convictions for rape or attempted rape in the space of 12 months.

This may seem like an alarming trend, with 125 convictions in 2014-15 compared with 89 the previous year.

However, the government has cited an increase in the number of victims coming forward as well as a more consistent approach to both investigations and prosecutions to explain the rise.

In the context of an 8 per cent increase in the number of convictions for sexual offences, the 40 per cent increase in rape and attempted rape convictions should, on the face of it, be welcomed.

According to Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, the number of convictions for rape and attempted rape are double what they were ten years ago.

However, closer examination of these new figures still offers cause for concern. More than a third of rape or attempted rape cases resulted in “not guilty” verdicts, compared with an overall 5 per cent rate for all offences.

And the proportion of people receiving a “not proven” verdict was also highest for rape and attempted rape, at 19 per cent.

Scotland’s poor rate of rape conviction has come in for a lot of study over the years. Commissions have reported and much has happened including a change of the law on corroboration and great changes in the way cases are prosecuted and investigated.

But although this work is welcome and is helping, the biggest reason why the number of convictions has gone up is because the number of reported incidents has also increased.

Commenting on the figures, justice secretary Michael Matheson delivered a simple message to those subjected to such crimes: “We want victims to have the confidence to come forward.”

There can be no argument with his assertion that domestic abuse and sexual offences will not be tolerated in modern Scotland. It is encouraging too to hear Mr Mulholland underline that “anyone who has been a victim of these crimes will be treated with dignity and respect and their complaint will be thoroughly investigated.”

The increase in reported offences is of course to be welcomed because one of the major blocks in the past was a reluctance of victims of sexual offences to come forward and report their attackers to the police.

This was either because of the fear of stigma or because victims did not want to be humiliated in the witness box, or because they thought the chances of conviction were so low. So overcoming that barrier has been a major achievement.

However, it is clear much more still needs to be done to improve the percentage of convictions in rape cases, which lag a long way behind other crimes.