Monday, 14 March 2011

New guidelines for dealing with rape cases

This post initially appeared on the Fresh Outlook:

Can new guidelines tackle pervasive rape myths?

Last year, after suffering years of violence, a young woman found the courage to accuse her abusive husband of rape. The police found plenty of evidence to charge him and the case was all set to go ahead, when the young woman falsely retracted her allegation. The reason? Her husband and his sister put huge amounts of pressure on her to withdraw her accusation, a not uncommon situation.

She was sentenced to eight months in prison by Judge Brown, a man with a history of giving domestic violence and child porn offenders suspended prison sentences.

The case was picked up by feminist campaigners, the media and the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, and the woman was eventually released from prison via the court of appeal. She still has a criminal conviction, and faces a fight to get custody of her children.

These types of cases are now under the spotlight as new interim guidelines are introduced by Starmer to ensure that victims of rape and domestic violence do not end up in prison. This will be supported with a public consultation, with guidelines finalised at the end of the year.

The guidelines advise members of the CPS that victims of domestic violence and rape may retract their allegations due to 'pressure, a fear of violence, or intimidation' and must be handled sensitively to ensure that women and men are not put off reporting the violence committed against them.

However, new guidelines on their own are not the answer to a problem that is influenced by the way rape and domestic violence continue to be viewed in society.

It is believed that 1 in 4 women will experience rape or sexual assault in her lifetime, with the annual number of rapes estimated to be between 45,000 and 104,000. Yet the conviction rate continues to stay at around 5-6%, and it is estimated that between 40 - 80% of rapes remain unreported. False accusations of rape do occur, however the rate is around the same, if not lower, as false accusations of any other crime (3-5%).

Yet these statistics do not match the impression of rape that is all too often created by various media outlets and popular perceptions. There remains a persistent and pernicious myth that women lie about rape, and that false accusations abound and are more common than rape itself. This has led to reporting around rape that suggests that if a man is acquitted, or the case doesn't even reach court, then the woman must be guilty of making a false accusation, even if she has not been accused, charged or prosecuted of the crime.

Being falsely accused of rape is a terrible thing, and a crime that needs to be punished by the law. But our whole perception of rape and false accusations has become hopelessly skewed thanks to the ways in which the crimes are reported in the media, and the sending to jail of women who have falsely retracted true allegations of rape.

As well as guidelines for the CPS, we need to start tackling rape myths that assume the woman is lying and that continue to undermine the fact that rape is a frighteningly common and destructive crime. We need to start educating about what active and informed consent means, and fight against the beliefs that all too often lead to all stages of the prosecution process, from the police to the CPS to juries to judges, allowing rapists to walk free.

Judge Brown sentencing:
Rape conviction and reporting rates:
False accusation stats: Fawcett Society report on 'Rape: The Facts'
Rape rate stats: Fawcett Society report on 'Rape: The Facts' and the BCS figures cited here:
Guidelines can be read here:

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