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Move to cut prejudice from rape trials

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Judges in rape cases should be able to intervene when they feel evidence could prejudice jurors against rape victims

Women’s groups and the police are urging MSPs to back a bill aimed at improving conviction rates for rape cases.

A Holyrood committee is considering the bill which would allow judges to direct jurors in rape cases to dismiss prejudicial evidence to enable a fairer hearing for victims.

Campaigners are concerned preconceived ideas about how soon a woman should report a rape or whether a woman fought back are having an impact on the outcome of trials.

They believe that when evidence is heard in court on these issues, jurors tend to doubt the testimony of the complainent.

The new law would allow judges to direct jurors to dismiss evidence of a time delay in victims reporting an attack as well as the absence of physical resistance is heard in court.

If the justice system is about a search for truth, then we need to make sure that jury members are equipped with factual information - Sandy Brindley

A range of groups and agencies address MSPs on Holyrood's Justice Committee on the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) bill this week.

Sandy Brindley, national co-ordinator of Rape Crisis said rape was still a very difficult charge to prosecute and the number of not proven verdicts remained disproportionately high.

She said: “Study after study shows significant proportion of people think a woman is responsible for rape.

“Jury members may hold their own views about what they would do if they were attacked, in relation to fighting back, and may judge a complainer’s behaviour in light of this.

“It is unreasonable to expect jury members to know that freezing and being unable to fight back is a very common reaction to a trauma such as rape.

“If the justice system is about a search for truth, then we need to make sure that jury members are equipped with factual information they may need to help them come to the right decision, and that this decision making is not marred by erroneous preconceptions about behaviour.”

The committee heard how studies showed thnat perceptions of rape were often prejudicial. Some 23% of people believe a woman can be partly responsible if she was drunk, 17% think wearing revealing clothing contributes to being responsible and 15% say flirting could be too blame, the MSPs were told.

More than half of all suspects taken to court on a charge of rape were cleared in 2013/14.

Of the 214 cases that year 37% were found not guilty and 20% not proven.

Malcolm Graham, Police Scotland assistant chief constable, said: “The perception of the stranger type rape being the most common crime type or an assumption that victims will fight remain common myths.

“We believe jury direction to this effect would assist outcomes not being unduly influenced by personal views.”