16 June 1997
Ending rape 'by any means necessary'?
Politicians, the police and feminists have combined to demand changes in
rape law. Sara Hinchliffe discovered that intolerance is the real order of
In the wake of an early day motion to change criminal justice procedure and
principle, signed by 64 MPs, on Saturday I went along to the Rape and the
Criminal Justice System conference, organised by feminist groups Justice
for Women and the Rape Crisis Federation, featuring Helena Kennedy and a
host of high-profile keynote speakers.
Despite the presence of hundreds of senior police officers, the Crown
Prosecution Service, barristers and representatives of MPs, the conference
was organised according to feminist principles. This included barracking
anyone who disagreed with the demands of the new (and optimistically named)
Campaign to End Rape and a platform dominated by speakers in favour of law
reform (with the sole exception of Helen Grindrod QC). One barrister who
attempted to ask rape victim Julia Mason how her ordeal in court could have
been made easier was accused of cross-examining her again; a speaker from
the respected St Mary's Centre for rape victims in Manchester was howled
down for suggesting that victims might worry about the punishment of
rapists. Any speaker who dared to suggest that legal reform was not the
answer was silenced by 'rape survivors' who told them that they obviously
had never been raped. Such emotive interventions left no space for rational
debate of the issues at stake.
Detective Sergeant Stephanie Yearnshire was the feminists' champion of the
day. Her demands to undermine due legal process and to make it easier for
the police to gain convictions were warmly accepted by the audience. Nor
were they reluctant to endorse the suggestion made by Liz Kelly, violence
supremo from the University of North London, that the law should
'encourage' particular types of sexual behaviour - a new departure for a
legal system that is premised on telling people what they ought not do
instead of telling them what they ought to do.
The conference made far-reaching demands (although, in the style of
contemporary feminism these were not voted on): to ensure a higher
conviction rate by moving the burden of proof to the defence in rape;
ending the right to an in-person defence and changing the spirit of 'beyond
The legal process has a number of important elements - the right to a
defence if you are accused of a crime; the right to know the evidence
against you; the right to remain silent, the right to confront your
accusers in court; the right to be judged by your peers; defendants not
convicted without overwhelming evidence, the punishment to fit the crime.
These are principles which are worth defending for both men and women. They
do not fail women; they provide the best way we know to get at the truth.
They are also what stand in the way of lynch-law. And lynch-law is,
ironically, what feminists are embracing.
If enacted, the demands of the conference would remove the right to a
defence; restrict the evidence open to defendants; remove defendants'
ability to see the witnesses against them; convict on less evidence; take
the victims' views into account when sentencing - a step backwards to the
retributive justice of the vendetta. The right to silence has already gone;
what would be left to defend us from summary justice? And what do victims
have to gain from false convictions?
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