Rape and the law: he said, she said?

Sunday 31 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Student Union

There is no doubt rape is a heinous crime. But where there is room for debate is over how the law and criminal justice system should deal with it. Headlines feature the oft-repeated claim that only six per cent of rape accusations lead to a conviction. Baroness Stern’s influential review earlier this year, however, concluded there has been too much focus on conviction rates. So what are the arguments behind these statistics, and do they require that every aspect of the investigation and prosecution of rape be reformed?

The Stern review notes that the total number of reports leading to convictions is misleading. The conviction rate for those cases that actually get to court is as high as 57.7 per cent. Many reports do not get as far as a court case, because they are withdrawn, or, as in 23 per cent of cases, there is insufficient evidence even to charge the suspect. Critics who continue to stress the six per cent figure suggest it proves the law is biased against rape victims, but this assumes all the cases dropped are genuine rapes, surely eroding the idea that those accused are innocent until proven guilty.

While campaigners worry the low conviction rate discourages victims from coming forward, Baroness Stern suggests the solution is to emphasise the more ‘positive’ conviction rates when solid charges can be brought, and also recommends support and care for victims be given as high a priority as the prosecution and conviction of perpetrators. In March the Home Office published its interim response to the review. It pointed out that complainants now have many new rights over their alleged attacker, and consequently have an ‘improved experience of the courtroom’. Victims are now entitled to remain anonymous throughout proceedings, are automatically entitled to measures such as voice distortion and testimony via video link, and are even able to make representations to a parole board as to what licence conditions should be imposed on their attacker once released.

Many argue these developments are progressive, and have brought the prosecution of rape up to date with modern attitudes. Others argue that a focus on victim’s rights can undermine the rights of the defendant, sidelining fundamental legal principles. Baroness Stern suggests women reporting rape should be believed from the outset. But does this mean that, when it comes to alleged rape, the accused is guilty until proven innocent? Is anonymity for complainants a vital mechanism for ensuring cases reach court, or does it undermine the principle that justice should be conducted openly? How can we ensure rape cases are prosecuted both fairly and effectively? Is it just to insist that rape cases be treated differently from all other crimes?

Listen to session audio:


Dan Subotnik
professor, Touro Law School, USA; author, Toxic Diversity: race, gender, and law talk in America and Copulemus in Pace: a meditation on rape, affirmative consent to sex, and sexual autonomy

Julie Bindel
journalist, author, broadcaster and feminist activist; research fellow, Lincoln University

Marguerite Russell
barrister, specialising in human rights and criminal law; founder member, Garden Court Chambers

Helen Reece
reader in law, LSE

Luke Gittos
criminal lawyer; director of City of London Appeals Clinic; legal editor at spiked; author, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans

Produced by
Luke Gittos criminal lawyer; director of City of London Appeals Clinic; legal editor at spiked; author, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans
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