Are Juries Unfit to Try Rape Cases?

Julie Bindel (Guardian 12 August 2016) thinks it’s wrong for juries to try rape cases because they lack expertise and don’t find enough defendants guilty. If lack of specialist expertise barred randomly selected members of the public from being jurors, there would not be many jury trials left. Citizens, in committees of 12, are remarkably good at dealing with complex cases of all kinds, and at doing justice. Judges generally agree. Trial by one’s peers is not something to toss away lightly on the basis of stereotypes and misconceptions. Working out who is telling the truth is not a matter for experts in any type of criminal case. Our fellow citizens are good at it, whichever segment of society they come from. Yes, they can sometimes produce results that the powerful dislike: stand up Clive Ponting. It’s sad that a brave campaigner for the powerless like Julie Bindel comes out with the same sort of thing. Juries have far more legitimacy in trying serious crime than a case-hardened panel of ‘experts’ ever would.

In rape cases juries are not less likely to convict: according to Professor Cheryl Thomas’s 201o study ‘Are Juries Fair?’ (answer: yes), in the 2-year period she studied juries, they convicted more readily in rape trials than in comparable cases of serious violence, at 55%. In the larger Court centres across England and Wales, the overall conviction rate ranged from 69% to 53%. The reasons for the differential were unclear but may be due to uneven distribution of different kinds of cases between the Courts. So rape convictions are not out of line with the general pattern.

Very few rapes are stranger rapes; in many cases, the accused and the accuser know one another and are the only significant witnesses. Where the issue is consent, the fact that ‘penetration’ has occurred is admitted and needs no scientific proof. The jury invariably decide the case by weighing one person’s word against another. That is seldom an easy task, in Court or outside, when judging an accusation of rape or anything else. The law demands –rightly – that no one may be convicted of an offence unless the jury are sure of guilt. They may think the evidence proves the accused is probably or possibly guilty – there may be strong suspicions – but still not enough to get over the line into being sure. That high standard protects the innocent from false or mistaken accusations – a protection of great value for which we should all be thankful.

Juries in rapes now receive explicit legal directions from the judge that are designed to dispel myths about complaints of rape. There are statutory restrictions on evidence about an accuser’s ‘sexual history’, which are rigorously applied. Juries hear about it only if it would cause serious unfairness to the defence if it was withheld. Judges have to strike a balance.

Prosecutors and Judges have specialist training before they can take on rape and serious sexual offence cases. Prosecutors are required to inform witnesses of the type of questioning they may face from the defence. In cases involving vulnerable witnesses, the Judge now receives the questions to be asked in cross-examination in advance, and may disallow inappropriate ones.

We could do more. A compulsory programme of vulnerable witness training for all advocates is coming. We could make the Court experience better for witnesses– by for example restoring the canteens that went in a recent mean-spirited round of cuts, so people at least can get a cup of tea while waiting. The MOJ could see to it that trials come on quicker.

What Julie Bindel proposes is to strip away a vital civil liberty because she thinks too many guilty men walk free. Perhaps some do: it may be a high price for our freedom, but it’s still worth paying.

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About Francis FitzGibbon QC

I am a QC and member of Doughty Street Chambers, London (www.doughtystreet.co.uk) & an associate member of Trinity Chambers, Newcastle (www.trinitychambers.co.uk). Chair of the Criminal Bar Association of England & Wales. I practise criminal law. Please do not look for legal advice in this blog as you won't find any. The views expressed here are entirely personal.
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