Some heartening news has come out from the Crown Prosecution Service and its new Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders. Along with Martin Hewitt, the Association of Chief Police Officer's lead for sexual offences, they have recommended new guidance for Judges presiding over sex offence cases. Said guidance will include proposals for judges to direct the jury to ignore the victim's past sexual conduct or any use of drink or drugs by the victim prior to the assault.
While judges often do address such issues in their directions to the jury at the end of the case, before the jury begins deliberation, often this is too late as by that point the jury may have made assumptions as to the 'guilt' of the victim. Classically these assumptions tend to fall under the usual "She's a slut so she must have wanted it" or "It's her own fault for being drunk" tropes. By beginning the case with a statement by the judge that such "myths and assumptions" have no place in the law, the hope is that more cases will end with convictions and that the prosecution rate for sexual offences will increase.
"'All of us are human, you're going to hear the evidence, you're going to make a judgement and then you're told to set your judgement 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." (Alison Saunders, DPP)
It is good to see that common sense is beginning to prevail in the UK legal system. The UK's conviction rate for sexual offences has plummeted in recent years. Fewer than one in thirty of rapes end in a conviction. Yvette Cooper MP recently revealed that while the number of sexual offences reported to the police had risen by 16%, there had been a fall of 7% in the number of cases that actually made it to court. It seems obvious that part of this drop can be attributed to the fact that too often victims are made to feel like they are complicit in their assault. In one case a woman was told by a CPS lawyer that they would not be pursuing her case because she had been wearing Spanx underwear at the time of her assault. The bar itself has not shown itself in the best light when it comes to sexual offences, with one barrister calling a 13 year old victim of rape 'predatory', and another likening being assaulted while drunk to falling off a bar-stool, stating that victims should take moral responsibility for their assault.
This needs to stop. As long as victims feel like they are either going to be ignored or maligned by the legal system, then we will never be able to address the systematic violence perpetrated against women in the UK. Perhaps before expressing outrage that the UK was deemed the most sexist country, we should look to our own house and acknowledge that our legal system does a shockingly poor job of protecting victims of sexual offence.
Hopefully Alison Saunders tenure as DPP will help to amend this. For now at least, it is some comfort that those at the top of the Legal system have recognized that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.