Police ‘rape teams’ to oversee cases under single force reforms

A RAFT of new measures to help rape victims is being planned with the introduction of Scotland’s new national police force, The Scotsman can reveal.

Proposals include an advocate representing rape victims from the moment they report the crime and throughout the investigation and court process.

Scotland’s new national force, which comes into effect in April, will also create 14 specialist rape teams across the country’s divisions.

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Senior officers at the head of the new single police service are determined to improve the country’s record in tackling sexual crimes.

Scotland once had one of Europe’s worst conviction rates for rape, and while that has improved, helped in part by the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 broadening the definition of the crime, police believe there is still a long way to go.

Part of that process is the aim of making victims more confident about reporting rape. Current estimates suggest nine out of ten female rape victims in Scotland do not report the crime to police.

Rape Crisis Scotland has consistently called for a lawyer to represent victims in rape cases, acting alongside pro­secution and defence counsel, and the organisation has been involved in talks with police about the new proposals.

The lawyer would directly represent the interests of the victim and oppose the intro­duction of sexual history evidence at the trial.

Rape Crisis Scotland says victims can sometimes feel as if they are the ones on trial during court cases, when their character, sexual history or medical records come under scrutiny.

Although Police Scotland’s plans are still in the early stages and under development, they have been created with the help of the campaign group.

The national force will now speak to the Scottish Government to try to secure funding for the scheme.

It is estimated that a 24-hour service could be piloted in Glasgow for less than £100,000 a year. If it proves successful, the scheme could then be rolled out nationwide.

Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: “Rape and sexual crimes are challenging and extremely vile offences, and we think we should – and we will – improve our responses to them.

“We are going to create a national rape taskforce,” the senior officer said. It will have a centralised unit to oversee and direct standards, and identify best practice, while also linking in with support groups, such as forensics.

“And we will also have 14 divisional, dedicated rape investigation teams.”

The rape teams are based partly on the successful Operation Federal, which was launched in West Lothian following an increase in crimes and saw a specialist team of five officers investigate all sexual crimes in the area.

An advocate for victims has been trialled in domestic abuse courts.

“In terms of victim care and public confidence, that [Operation Federal] has had a big impact. We want to build on that, so we have a national approach to investigating rape,” Mr Livingstone said.

“We feel having dedicated teams will improve public confidence,” he went on. “And we are learning from domestic abuse courts, in terms of having an advocacy service.

“That’s in the early stages of development, but it would be part of our approach.

“This will be the start of that process to put victims at the heart and make sure investigative techniques are robust and thorough.

“We’ve got a long way to go to get it right, but these are major steps along the way.”

Talks between police and Scottish Government officials are expected to take place shortly.

“That’s a proposal in the early stages at the moment, based on experience in domestic abuse courts and best practice that exists there,” Mr Livingstone said.

“We hope to be entering into discussions with the Scottish Government to get funding.”

Rape Crisis Scotland has welcomed the proposals.

Sandy Brindley, its national co-ordinator, said: “It’s a very exciting proposal, which could make a big difference.

“It makes sense that if you support the complainer, you will get better evidence and less chance that they will drop out of the process.

“It’s still the case that many women, and men, don’t report. The more you can do to increase confidence of a sympathetic response, the better, and this advocacy pilot will help.”

Despite recorded crime falling to a 37-year low, rape and attempted rape rose sharply in annual figures released last year.

In 2011-12, there were 1,274 cases of rape and attempted rape recorded by police, up 13 per cent from 1,131 the previous year. Of those 1,274 cases, only 24 were offences against men.

This rise in reported cases was partly due to the introduction of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act, which came into force in December 2010.

The Scottish Government says it is continuing to consider changes that would make it easier to prosecute sexual crimes.

A spokesman said: “The Scottish Government will continue to work with partners to improve the support available for all victims of crime.

“Our plans to abolish the requirement for corroboration will help remove a barrier to prosecuting crimes like rape and domestic abuse.

“In 2013, we will bring forward the Victims and Witnesses Bill, which will include a number of measures to improve support to victims, including support for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence, setting clear standards of service for public agencies and increasing access to information about cases.”