Want to Stop Violence Against Women? Fix the Legal System

From #metoo, to #heforshe, the internet has been tackling violence against women one hashtag at a time. However, as the tragic events of this week show, things aren’t changing.


Women hold signs during a protest, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, in London, Britain March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Women hold signs during a protest, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, in London, Britain March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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LONDON (Within the Law) - Anger is everywhere. Some are angry at the police, others are angry at me and some, for reasons best known to themselves are angry at Eddie Izzard.

Keir Starmer has headed off to find a focus group to tell him whether he should support protests against rape, while the Conservatives have made mumbling promises about tougher sentences. None of these, though, will do anything unless we fix a broken legal system. 

Funding 

Austerity has been devastating to the Ministry of Justice. In 2019/20, the MOJ budget was 25% lower than in 2010. Those cuts have a devastating impact. Recorded crime is higher than in 2010, but prosecutions have fallen. 

A recent Twitter thread from the Secret Barrister shows how this works in practice. 

The thread starts: “Any politician of any party who claims that the answer to tackling violence against women is simply a matter of “tougher sentences” is not being honest with the public.” 

The thread goes on to describe a current case, which took the police a staggering total of 18 months to investigate. Delays occurred everywhere starting with the need for mobile phone records to demonstrate the behaviour. 

“Due to police cuts and the government’s refusal to fund Digital Investigation Units, there is a backlog of at least 12 months to examine digital devices in most areas of the country,” reads the thread. 

It also required medical records which meant liaising with the Crown Prosecution Service: “CPS has also been defunded and is understaffed. So, further delay.”

The defendant denied the allegations, so it had to go to trial. It took six months before it reached the first hearing before the magistrates. From there it went to the Crown Court where it joined a lengthy queue for a trial slot. Even before COVID 19, these were more than a year. In 2019 the government decided to cut court days despite a backlog of cases in order to save money.

Add to this the fact that victims often put off reporting cases and all sides can be waiting years for justice. However, even when cases go to court, the chances of a conviction are shockingly low. 

The decriminalisation of rape 

Only 1.4% cases of rape were prosecuted in 2019, a record low. While the number of rapes reported are rising, the number being prosecuted is falling. This follows an overall trend in which the number of reported crimes being charged has been falling. However, securing a conviction for sexual assault has always been particularly challenging. Funding cuts only tell half the story. 

An equally major issue is juries. In 2018 a Labour MP Ann Coffey made the controversial suggestion of doing away with juries for rape trials. The reason? They simply can’t be trusted. Common misconceptions about rape have become so ingrained in our society, that juries comprised of ordinary people are fundamentally unsuited to try a rape trial. 

Prevailing myths such as ‘she was asking for it', or that the defendant was handsome and so would have no need to rape, have been so deeply stamped into the psyche that getting a jury to convict is incredibly difficult. As we’ve seen in this most recent case, women and girls are routinely blamed for their own rape. People will ask why she walked home alone, was she dressing too provocatively? This attitude means people are found innocent even when the evidence is there for all to see.

Cases are all too common such as the quashing of a rape conviction against footballer Ched Evans after the jury was allowed to know the sexual history of the victim. The victim was quizzed in detail about her sex life, prompting fears it may deter women from coming forward. 

It also enshrines the concept of ‘she was asking for it’ into criminal law. Given the immense cost involved in bringing a case, the prejudices of the jury may deter police from pressing ahead with a case if there are questions about the history of the victim.   

The system is unfair for both victims and accused. Evans will be considered not guilty under the law, but he retains the stigma for the rest of his life. The victim, meanwhile, was effectively slut-shamed by the court.  

Politicians don’t care

Anyone hoping this government will put things right is in for a disappointment. The unfortunate truth is that politicians don’t care. Sexual harassment has been part of the background culture in parliament for years. 

In 2018 Dame Laura Cox’s report identified “a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.”

Claims of sexual harassment and even rape have been met with ambivalence. When Charlie Elphicke faced claims of sexual assault he was readmitted to the party after a brief suspension. Boris Johnson was only too happy to be pictured with him in July 2019. 

Elphicke, eventually found himself one of the precious few people convicted of sexual assault in 2020, when he was jailed for two years. His incredulous response was of someone who naturally assumed he would get away with it.  

This week we’ve seen where priorities lie. While women have been campaigning for the right to walk home without fear of being killed, the government has been pushing through a bill to protect statues. Under the provisions of this law, you may receive a higher sentence for damaging a statue than committing a rape.  

When one MP raised this point during the debate, she was met with the sound of male laughter. It tells you everything you want about the current situation. Elphicke should find himself lucky he was only guilty of multiple sexual assaults rather than drawing a moustache on Winston Churchill. 

While that’s the case, any hope that the government will plug the gaping holes in the justice system. There is no point in increasing the maximum sentence for rape if there’s only a small chance anyone will be convicted. As the victims commissioner Dame Ver Baird said, ‘we are facing the decriminalisation of rape’. Only by providing the justice system with the tools it needs and addressing toxic attitudes at all levels will this change. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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