Rape victims to give evidence on video pre-trial to boost conviction rates

·3 min read
A woman silhouette - Niall Carson/PA
A woman silhouette - Niall Carson/PA

Rape victims are to be allowed to give their evidence on video pre-trial to help improve conviction rates, under a government review due to be unveiled next month.

The review will also say rape victims should have their phones returned by police within 24 hours and that judges should bar the public from courts more often to ease the stress on victims when they give their evidence.

Under the plans, victims will be able to pre-record their evidence, including cross-examination by lawyers, which would then be played during a trial sparing them the trauma of appearing in court.

Ministers believe the move could also increase guilty pleas by accused rapists who often hold out for a trial in the knowledge that their victim may withdraw.

By knowing that their victim has already given evidence in front of a judge, ministers believe it would tip more into accepting their guilt.

The move is part of a major government review led by Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, to reverse rape charging rates which have fallen in the past five years from 8.3 per cent of offences to just 1.5 per cent.

The proportion of victims withdrawing from prosecutions has doubled from 20 per cent to more than 40 per cent in the same period largely due to intrusive police investigations into their digital communications, lengthy court delays and the trauma of reliving their attack in court.

The review will also encourage judges to make greater use of their powers to bar the public from courts when rape victims give evidence in order to reduce the trauma that they might face.

It is also expected to impose curbs to stop police trawling previous sexual relationships including a requirement that rape victims should have their phones returned by police within 24 hours.

A report by the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham last year concluded that police forces were taking “excessive amounts of personal data” from victims' phones amid warnings that cases were being dropped due to the intrusive demands.

It will also propose a public education campaign to combat rape myths and more specialist support for victims through having independent sexual assault advisors (IVSAs) who can guide them every step of the way to court.

“There is a real issue of people dropping out of investigations at an early stage. It is as much about being supportive as it is about improving outcomes in trials,” said a source.

The move on giving evidence follows trials of the technology for vulnerable witnesses at Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston-upon-Thames courts, where it was found to be of “positive” benefit.

A rape victim would give their evidence after their alleged attacker had been charged and once pre-trial preparations had been completed, but weeks before the trial was set to go ahead.

Prosecution and defence lawyers would cross-examine the victim as the judge and defendant watched via a video link from the courtroom. Once the judge was satisfied, the recording would be retained until the trial when it could be played to the jury.

The move has been urged by Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner, who said greater use of pre-recorded evidence was essential as increasing numbers of rape victims “gave up on the justice system and walked away” due to the trauma of giving evidence.

“Pre-trial evidence and cross examination means that once it has been done, their role in the trial is over. They can move on with their lives and seek help to recover from any trauma,” she said.

The Ministry of Justice has also successfully trialled the technology for under-age victims and those with mental health problems and its use in such cases has been widened to all crown courts in London and Kent, as well as some others in the West Midlands, Sussex and Essex.