Two different but related reports have caught my eye this week. The first deals with the ordeal of giving evidence in court, and the second with the apparent lack of support from a variety of agencies for alleged victims of rape.

Rape convictions in Little Britain are at an all time low compared with other ‘civilised’ countries, although I remember with wry amusement the ruling of the Court of Cassation in Italy that a woman wearing tight jeans cannot be raped, as she would need to assist the offender in removing them. Viva la differencia!

The problems highlighted in both reports stem, in the main, from the system put in place to investigate allegations of rape through to the court room drama itself. There are a variety of complaints, the most notable being that police officers don’t take victims seriously enough, if at all, it’s all “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” in the station hospitality suite, and even if they get past this first hurdle, there is very little follow up in the investigation itself. Very little trawling for supporting evidence, tracking down witnesses and taking statements, and at best, a disinterested and cursory visit to the scene of the crime. So it’s her word against his, with a few random pubic hairs thrown in for good measure, and according to the statistics, she comes a poor second.

I don’t believe the low conviction rate can be blamed on the jury, and in my considerable experience, I have rarely gasped in astonishment at a not guilty verdict. One springs to mind, where the judge directed the jury that drink was no defence, and the jury acquitted my client on the basis that he was too drunk to know what he was doing, which rather defeats the object of the exercise.

But no matter. Juries for the most part work on the evidence before them, and a distressed victim is not necessarily a credible witness.

There is certainly an argument for more support when victims and witnesses alike arrive at court. We have what is euphemistically called a “witness support unit,” consisting of well meaning matronly volunteers to hand hold and wipe away the tears. Of course they offer some comfort and a shoulder to cry on, but they are often as unprepared for the ordeal as the witnesses they are supposed to be supporting. They are also programmed to regard defence counsel as the enemy. In a recent case, after the female witness had finished giving her evidence in chief, and at the instigation of the victim supporter, she promptly sat down as I rose to my feet. I remonstrated. “You’re a big, lusty girl,” I observed in my usual caring way, “so why do you need to sit down?” She stood up again, shaking visibly throughout my incisive cross examination, and my client was gloriously acquitted. Pure coincidence!

From my perspective, there is no ordeal about giving evidence in court if the witness tells the truth. As they say, the truth never hurts. A very silly expression, but if the cap fits, wear it! The truth, of course, is my client’s version of events. Anything else is a tissue of lies. So if the witness sings from my song sheet, she’ll be in and out of the witness box in no time at all, with my fulsome thanks for her attendance ringing in her ears.

Ordeal? What ordeal?

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David is an English barrister, writer, public performer and keynote speaker. His full profile can be found on his website.

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