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Rape accusers routinely questioned about sexual histories

10th Feb 2017

Rape complainants are being routinely questioned in court about their sexual histories and how they were dressed on the night they were attacked, according to a dossier of case studies to be presented to MPs. This has led to calls for the law to be tightened to protect complainants better.

References to a person’s sexual history in court are meant to be heavily restricted. Section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (1999) states that “No such evidence is to be admitted, or questions allowed, unless a judge has ruled that they are admissible.”

However, findings prepared by the campaign group Voice4Victims suggest many judges are allowing such questions to be discussed openly in court.

The group cites a study initiated by Dame Vera Baird QC, a former solicitor general, that found questions were raised about the prior sexual conduct of complainants in a third of the 30 rape cases attended by independent observers. In a further four of the cases, court rules stipulating the need to give the alleged victims prior notice they were to be cross-examined were ignored.

“There is clear and overwhelming evidence that rape victims are questioned about their previous sexual history, behaviour and appearance,” said Harry Fletcher, co-director of Voice4Victims. “This would not happen to victims involved in other types of trials. Changes to legislation are needed urgently.”

Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts will ntroduce a private member’s bill that seeks to introduce a “rape shield law”, which would prevent a defendant introducing evidence about a complainant’s past sexual behaviour.

“It is neither right nor just that a victim of rape can be questioned in court on matters not relevant to the case in hand,” Saville-Roberts said. “Yet in the recent past, victims have been humiliated by lawyers asking questions about their sexual partners, their clothing and appearance. Rape Shield Laws have been introduced in other countries to protect victims from the emotional trauma of being questioned about their sexual history on the witness stand, and it is time for victims here to be afforded the same protections.”

Last year, 35,798 complaints of rape were made to the police. But there were only 2,689 convictions, partly, campaign groups contend, because some complainants withdrew their allegations, fearing humiliation in court. The new bill also prohibits, in certain cases, the disclosure by the police of a victim’s identity to a stranger attacker.

The bill, which has drawn cross-party support, also makes provisions for safeguarding rape complainants in schools.