More rapists are found guilty – but convictions still lowest in Europe

MORE rapists are being convicted in Scotland's courts although the country's conviction rate for the crime remains the lowest in Europe, The Scotsman can reveal.

Campaigners have hailed changes to the way rape cases are handled, including the use of specially trained procurators fiscal, for helping to raise the conviction rate from 2.9 per cent in 2006-7 to 3.7 per cent in 2007-8.

But one expert last night described the fact that fewer than one in 25 reported rapes ends in conviction as "appalling".

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Fiona Raitt, professor of evidence at Dundee University, has also called on police to create a national database of rapes to help prosecutors build stronger cases against serial attackers.

She said Scotland's low rape conviction rate was a product of something "endemic" in Scotland's criminal justice system.

"Even if there is a slight improvement on one reading, they are still appalling figures – the worst in Europe."

The law in Scotland requires corroboration in rape cases, something experts say is a major stumbling block for proving guilt.

But Prof Raitt believes the police should be "far more proactive" in gathering evidence when a rape is reported.

"It is possible to construct a database where records of reported rapes, detailed accounts, can be uploaded by police.

"We often know when someone is caught, they have a record of sexual offences. If you systematically logged rape reports, you could identify matching features that would help to identify the perpetrator and provide more supporting evidence to bolster a fresh case," she said.

Figures obtained by The Scotsman show that in 908 cases reported to police in 2007-8, 34 – or 3.7 per cent – resulted in a conviction for rape.

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The previous year, only 27 of 922 reported rapes ended in a guilty plea or verdict – giving Scotland a conviction rate of 2.9 per cent, the lowest ever.

Despite the increase in the overall rate, the proportion of cases which reached court that ended in conviction actually fell from 41.4 per cent to 38.6 per cent, fuelling calls for radical changes to the way rapes are handled by police and the Crown Office.

The figures also show huge regional variations in the conviction rate.

Of the 142 rapes reported in Fife and Tayside, not a single one has resulted in a conviction.

At the other end of the spectrum, three of the 25 rapes reported in Dumfries and Galloway resulted in a guilty plea or verdict, with a 100 per cent success rate for every case prosecuted.

The variations reflect the findings of a report published today by equality campaigners the Fawcett Society, highlighting a "postcode lottery" over whether rapists are brought to justice.

The news also comes as MSPs today prepare to approve a raft of new sex-crime laws. The Scottish Parliament is expected to back the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill, which will introduce a clear statutory definition of rape that campaigners hope will help persuade juries to convict more people accused of the crime.

Sandy Brindley, national coordinator of Rape Crisis Scotland, said she was pleased that the conviction rate – which stood at more than 12 per cent 20 years ago – had increased.

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"There have been a number of significant attempts made in the past few years to improve legal responses to rape, including the changes being implemented by the Crown Office into how they prosecute rape.

"Hopefully these figures are a sign that the steps that have been taken are starting to have an effect," she said.

'Criminal justice system rising to the challenge of bringing sex abusers to book'

BRINGING to justice those who commit sexual abuse has always represented a challenge for criminal justice systems the world over and not least in Scotland. Scots law is almost unique in demanding that the victim's evidence is corroborated by other independent evidence.

These offenders exert power and control, whether physical or emotional, to isolate their victims which means there are rarely eye witnesses.

Even in cases in which there is enough evidence to prosecute, the absence of strong independent evidence to support the allegation means that the victim's testimony will often be the sole focus of the defence case.

But in many cases the challenge is more profound. The psychological dynamics of how sexual crime affects its victims are complex. We know that victims often blame themselves for the attack and fear how society will judge them or their actions.

A fear of being judged and the prospect of describing and reliving an act of intimate sexual violation at a trial represent insurmountable barriers for many victims with the result that often the victim is the person most opposed to the prospect of a criminal trial.

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The challenges are significant but so too are our efforts to meet them.

Our aims are clear: to ensure that investigations are rigorous and that victims are supported through the process and treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Over the last three years we have worked to reform the way in which sexual crime is approached by prosecutors in Scotland

, testament to our commitment to tackling sexual crime and meeting the challenges which that presents.

• Andrew McIntyre is head of the Crown Office's victims and diversity team.