Jolyon Maugham QC, the well-known Remain campaigner and tax law specialist, writes in the New Statesman of the ‘impunity’ that he believes the legal system grants to men who commit rape. He is shocked by the ‘attrition rate’ between the number of sexual offences of rape and the number of convictions in Court. He cites figures from the Office for National Statistics that suggest that in 2013 ‘there were an estimated 60,000-95,000 victims of rape in a year, there were only 1,070 convictions.’ He believes ‘the solution can only be to change the law’, and questions whether juries should try rape cases at all.
Whether juries are fit to try many kinds of case is a question that is never long out of public discussion. There are those like the outgoing director of the Serious Fraud Office who thinks juries should not try serious frauds, because they are too complicated; others say the same about cases with difficult scientific issues; and many in the senior judiciary think that defendants should lose the right to choose jury trials in cases that are too simple, such as shoplifting (not so simple if you wrongfully acquire a conviction for dishonesty and cannot get a job). In short, the jury has many enemies.
But the jury is you and me and our neighbours. Young and old, wise and foolish, all made of the same crooked timber of humanity as the judge, the police officer and the defendant on trial. The genius of this accidentally arrived at way of doing justice is that twelve turns out to be the right number to even out the differences. In her seminal 2010 study Are Juries Fair?, Professor Cheryl Thomas was permitted to speak to hundreds of jurors about their deliberations. The answer to her was Yes, with caveats including the need to give more help, such as written directions on the law and a list of the questions jurors should ask themselves on the ‘route to verdict’. The Courts have adopted most of her recommendations.
Professor Thomas corrected one of the ‘Misconceptions about jury verdicts in rape cases’: ‘contrary to popular belief and previous government reports, juries actually convict more often than they acquit in rape cases (55% jury conviction rate)’. That figure was consistent with the general run of cases, and does not suggest that there is anything peculiar about rape trials that sets them apart from others. The hallmark of many rape trials is that the jury have to decide between two contradictory accounts – complainant v defendant – with little or no supporting evidence on either side. Trials like that are not exclusive to cases of rape. With the prosecution having the burden of proving their case so that the jury are sure, the decision for the jury in any such case can be hard.
The prevalence of sexual offending is a great social evil, but the legal system and the alleged weakness of jury trials in particular can’t be held responsible for men committing rape, any more than they can for the upsurge in knife crime or burglary. Myths still abound about disrespectful treatment of women complainants by the police and in Court. Police officers, prosecutors and judges receive specialist training in sex offence work; abusive cross-examination by defenders is rare and judges do not tolerate it. That may not make the prospect of reporting a rape to the police and following it through to trial much less daunting, but perpetuating myths may contribute to the ‘attrition rate’. We can surely improve the support given to victims of sexual abuse, but changing the rules is not the way forward.