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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 the day

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 reasonable doubt'.

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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