UK

How can more sex offenders be brought to justice?

Max Clifford Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The jury took eight days to convict Max Clifford

The announcement over the tannoy signalled the end of the case: "All parties in Clifford to Court One."

The verdicts arrived 10 minutes later: Max Clifford, publicist to the stars, guilty of eight indecent assaults.

But the road to the end of the trial at Southwark Crown Court had been a long and tense one.

The jury had spent eight days in April, spread over almost two weeks, considering their verdicts.

When the jurors filed back into court at the end of each day, the strain showed - it was as if the weight of the decisions they had to make was bearing down on their shoulders.

Of course, cases involving allegations of sexual offences are delicate and difficult for juries to deal with.

The damage to the individual accused of the crimes is potentially huge - greater still when the defendant is well-known or a celebrity.

And the evidence on which the prosecution relies often hinges on the word of one person - their accuser.

In historical cases, there is unlikely to be any forensic evidence to prove that sexual contact took place.

And with recent allegations, the accused may argue that the victim consented.

Yet the length of time the Clifford jury had taken was puzzling.

The jurors were clearly hard-working and meticulous in their approach; the 11 charges they had to consider required careful thought.

But it was not a complex case, involving large amounts of documentary evidence or taped material.

Most observers agreed that the victims had given compelling accounts of sexual abuse against Clifford, demonstrating a clear pattern of behaviour.

Low conviction rates

In the Dave Lee Travis case, it took two trials before the former BBC presenter was eventually found guilty.

The jury in the first trial spent four days considering their verdicts, acquitting him of 12 counts and failing to agree on two.

There were a further four days' deliberations at the second trial, when Travis was cleared of two charges, as well of being convicted of one.

Juries are never asked why they reach the verdicts they do, nor do they explain why it sometimes takes them so long.

But there are long-standing concerns that myths and stereotypes among jurors about the way victims respond to being sexually assaulted lead to fewer defendants being found guilty.

Indeed, conviction rates for sexual assault cases in England and Wales are the lowest of all categories of crime.

According to Ministry of Justice figures, in the 12 months to the end of March, just over half of court proceedings for sexual offences resulted in a conviction, 52.8%.

That compares with:

  • 67.4% for offences of violence against the person
  • 65.4% for robbery
  • 80.1% for all indictable crimes (offences serious enough to be tried at a Crown Court)

And the conviction rate for sexual offences has been falling - it is currently at its lowest for eight years, though a notch above what it was in the early 2000s.

The proportion of rapes (a sub-set of sexual offences) that result in a conviction has also dropped - to 60.3%, down almost three percentage points on the previous year.

The Crown Prosecution Service, which provided the rape figures, has been so worried about the unexpected reduction in convictions that in June it published a joint "action plan" with the police to address the problems "immediately".

Balaclava misconception

Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, identified several areas where improvements could be made but focused on one aspect in particular.

"Myths and stereotypes," she said, "still pervade throughout society and have the potential to influence jurors too."

Mrs Saunders said many people still believed a rapist was "a man in a balaclava in a dark alley and a victim is a woman who shows her fear through fight" when this was "very rarely" the case.

"Most rapists know their victim, many victims do not physically fight and the trauma of being raped will affect each victim differently," she added, in a statement co-written by Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt, national policing lead for adult sexual offences.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Dave Lee Travis was convicted at a second trial

The message about rape "myths" is not a new one. Far from it.

In 2002, a research review, by Prof Liz Kelly, said the term "myth" had been used in relation to rape for 30 years.

Her study was used to underpin what was then seen as a ground-breaking report into the investigation and prosecution of rape, which said there was a "general perception" that most rape offences were committed by a "lone male against a female", when this was not usually the case.

Prof Kelly set out the "myths" which included:

  • an attack always caused injuries
  • women were "asking for it" by their dress or behaviour
  • anyone facing the possibility of rape would resist

Similar points were made in a government consultation paper in 2006, a review by Lady Stern in 2010, and are now the subject of a campaign, set up in September this year by Jill Saward, who was the victim of a much publicised rape in 1986.

The campaign - called Juries (Jurors Understanding Rape Is Essential Standard) calls for mandatory briefings for jurors at the beginning of trials about the myths, stereotypes and realities of sexual abuse and rape.

Juries can be given such guidance - though it usually happens as part of the summing-up, after all the evidence has been heard, and is tailored to the individual circumstances of each case.

Rape team investment

But Nicole Westmarland, Professor of Criminology at Durham University, says blaming jurors for low conviction rates in sexual assault and rape cases isn't the answer.

"It's an easy get-out," she says. "If anything, attitudes are improving."

Prof Westmarland, who has written extensively on sexual violence, suggests that budget cuts to police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service are a more important contributory factor in the decline in conviction rates because they've diluted the quality of investigations.

"It probably means there's less investment in specialist rape teams," she says, adding that police in some areas have been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of allegations of abuse.

In the 12 months to the end of March, when the proportion of convictions for sexual offences fell to just over half, the number of allegations logged by police rose to a then-record 64,206.

Since then, they have increased further. The most recent annual statistics, to the end of June, show that police recorded 67,805 sexual offences - 21% more than in the previous year - a new all-time high.

Of course, there is no proof of a link between the rise in the number of allegations and the reduction in the conviction rate, just as there's nothing to show conclusively that juries' decisions are affected by myths or stereotypes.

Until we let researchers into the jury room or interview jurors about their reasoning we may never discover why they do not convict - and we will never know what discussions took place in the Max Clifford case before the guilty verdicts were eventually returned.

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