A piece in today’s Times. As always, substitute “victims” with “alleged victims”, and “survivors” with “alleged survivors”:
Serious sexual crimes will be prosecuted at a new Scottish national court using recorded evidence under plans to create one of the most sensitive judicial environments in the world.
One proposal of a review led by Lady Dorrian suggests the consideration of a time-limited pilot scheme to assess the feasability of dispensing with jury trials in rape cases in favour of judge-led hearings.
The principal recommendation is the creation of the new specialist court. Another proposal suggests that “rape myths and stereotypes” are debunked as a matter of routine where juries are asked to adjudicate on serious sexual cases.
The specialist court would wield sentencing powers of up to ten years’ imprisonment with the option to apply to the High Court for a higher tariff if required.
Among other groundbreaking proposals, a new charter for complainers would be introduced. Its provisions would include public funding to help complainers challenge defence lawyers’ attempts to ask them about their sexual histories.
Victims of rape would also be spared the trauma of a court appearance.
Taped evidence, collected during police interviews conducted by specialist officers, would be used in trials, while under the plans cross-examination would also be recorded at the earliest opportunity.
The right for a complainer in proceedings to remain anonymous in the media would be enshrined in law rather than relying on convention and co-operation with news organisations.
Proceedings in the court itself would be designed to deal sensitively with the most traumatised people. A combination of High Court judges and sheriffs would preside over cases, all of whom would be trained in the presentation of evidence of vulnerable witnesses.
It is also suggested that prosecutors receive “trauma-informed” training and defence agents complete courses to help them deploy the most sensitive examination techniques. Similar reforms are recommended for the children’s hearings system where sexual offences are under investigation.
Dorrian, the lord justice clerk who presided over Alex Salmond’s trial, was asked to conduct the review by the lord justice general Lord Carloway, and said it had been prompted “by the growth in volume and complexity of sexual offending cases affecting all sections of the criminal justice system”.
Dorrian said: “We have made recommendations which we believe will fundamentally change and improve the way sexual offences are prosecuted in Scotland.”
The review group was tasked principally with improving the experience of complainers in sexual offence cases without compromising the rights of the accused.
The recommendations will now be considered by the lord justice general, Lord Carloway.
At 56 per cent the conviction rate last year for sexual assaults in Scotland reached its lowest level in a decade, according to official figures.
While there was a slight increase in the conviction rate for the crimes of rape and attempted rape, from 43 per cent to 47 per cent, it remained the lowest conviction rate compared with all other crimes.
Sandy Brindley, chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, described the report as “important and necessary”.
She said: “All too often survivors tell us that the process of seeking justice — and in particular their experiences in court — are at least as traumatic as the attacks themselves. It is clear that significant action is needed. The recommendations are bold, evidence-based, and have the potential to transform Scotland’s response to sexual crime.”
Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, said that improving court experiences for survivors of sexual violence would improve access to justice.
She also welcomed the review and said: “The recommendations it makes reflect the gap between the promise of justice and the lived experience of survivors who so often feel re-victimised and let down by court processes.”
Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said the reforms were potentially transformative. “Trauma-informed practice must become part of the DNA of Scotland’s justice system,” she said.
David Harvie, the Crown agent, said: “The introduction of a specialist sexual offences court would be an important step towards meaningful improvement in the delivery of justice in Scotland, for complainers, for accused, for society as a whole.”
Samantha McCluskey, a detective chief superintendent at Police Scotland, said rape and other serious sexual offences presented “considerable evidential challenges”. She added: “Investigations must be rigorous and thorough to ensure the best evidence available is secured.”
McCluskey stressed the work specialist officers already achieved in recording statements, adding: “We are fully supportive of wider measures that will improve the experience of victims and survivors of sexual crime throughout the criminal justice process.”
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