Tuesday 19 September 2017

Lawyers could be banned from questioning rape victims about sexual history

Ched Evans was acquitted of raping a 19-year-old woman at a retrial (stock photo)
Ched Evans was acquitted of raping a 19-year-old woman at a retrial (stock photo)

Kate Ferguson

Lawyers could be banned from questioning rape victims about their sexual history under a change to the law proposed by Harriet Harman in the wake of the Ched Evans case.

The Welsh footballer was acquitted of raping a 19-year-old woman at a retrial after a judge allowed evidence to be heard from two men who had sex with her around the time of the allegation.

The ruling sparked controversy as critics warned it would encourage more lawyers to make the application and ambush women in court about their sexual history.

Ms Harman, a former solicitor general and ex-deputy leader of the Labour Party, said Britain risks returning to the days when women were judged as either "virtuous" or "fallen".

She has tabled an amendment to the Prisons and Courts Bill, which returns to Parliament on Tuesday for committee stage, to close the loophole in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 which allows the evidence if it's in the interests of justice.

She told the Press Association: "This loophole had been a problem for some time but it then really emerged with a vengeance in the Ched Evans case.

Ched Evans Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Ched Evans Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

"The interests of justice argument is based on the notion that there are two sorts of woman - a woman who is to be believed, who is virtuous, and a fallen woman who has had previous sexual activity and is not to be believed.

"It is of no evidential value for the facts that you are actually trying in court on that particular issue."

The Crown Prosecution Service cannot confidently say to a woman that her sexual history will not be used as evidence against her, and this is putting victims off reporting rape and sex assaults to the police, Mr Harman said.

Her amendment is being supported by Dame Vera Baird, the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner and ex-solicitor general, who earlier this year brought out a report showing that a woman's sexual past was used as evidence in 11 out of 30 rape trials analysed.

Ms Harman said these findings show that "we have been on a slippery slope" for some time and the law must be changed to close the loophole.

Justice Secretary Liz Truss has already tabled an amendment to the Prisons and Courts Bill to allow rape victims to pre-record their cross examination to spare them the ordeal of having to go to court.

And Ms Harman said she hopes her amendment will also get her support.

She said: "She has put something in to help the rate of rape convictions, she has put forward a good proposal in this so she wants this Bill to improve rape convictions.

"But the really big problem with rape convictions is not only giving your evidence in court, but actually what the evidence is.

"So, I'm hopeful that she will accept this new clause I am putting down, and I am hoping we will get support for the new Tory women MPs, as well as all the Labour MPs who will support it."

Asked if she thinks there will be a backlash to her proposal from the legal profession, Ms Harman said: "I don't want to hear anyone arguing again the old-fashioned view that if a woman has had previous sexual partners that she is less likely to be believable when she says she didn't consent.

"It is just a reprehensible argument."

Press Association

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