Women, Rape, Alcohol and the Law

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2007 National Women's Conference
15 February 2007


(Emergency Motion – Alcohol & Rape of Women and Emergency Motion 4 – Who’s Perverting the Course of Justice?

Under current English and Welsh law rape can only be established if it can be demonstrated that sexual intercourse took place without consent and that the defendant lacked a reasonable belief that such consent had been given.

Currently only 5.7% of rape allegations reported to police lead to convictions. The police statistics 2003/4 recorded 52,070 sexual offences, 13,247 were offences for rape. Further to that a Home Office study in 2005 found that 80% of cases did not get beyond the investigation stage. Further research uncovers the minefield for women who are raped under the influence of alcohol.

The researchers Dr Emily Finch and Dr Vanessa Munro funded by the Economic and Social Research Council used mock jury trials to simulate verdicts of jurors. The study, published on 6 December and reported in national newspapers the next day, reveals that most jurors would find the women partly responsible for what took place either because she accepted drinks from the defendant, failed to refuse drinks offered or failed to take reasonable care that her drinks were not spiked. Many jurors took the view that it was reasonable for a man to assume that silence represented consent. This research highlights the gender stereotypes and how many still believe that a drunken woman in some way holds a modem of responsibility when she is sexually assaulted.

What is obvious from this research is that the legal definition of consent needs to be changed so vulnerable women are protected. The evidence also suggests that there are clear links between excessive alcohol consumption and sexual assault.

Conference is concerned to note the recent cases of women being charged with perverting the course of justice for allegedly falsely claiming rape. Conference also notes the media attention that has focussed on so called “rape liars”, following the outrageous decision by Lord Campbell-Savours to name a woman in the House of Lords in October 2006; a cynical move which undermines UK law, under which any woman alleges rape is granted anonymity for life.

In Warren Blackwell case, although his conviction for rape had been overturned, the woman in question had not been convicted of perverting the course of justice, which would have established that the sexual assault never took place. Campaigners, appalled by the peer’s use of parliamentary privilege to name the woman, regard this as a setback for all women who suffer sexual assault.

In another recent case, a woman was found guilty of perverting the course of justice after alleging that a man had forced his way into her flat and violently raped her. Forensic examination found that intercourse had taken place and noted bruising on her neck and breasts. Despite the fact that she was a lesbian and had never had sex with a man, the judge concluded that consensual sex had taken place and jailed her for nine months. Her name and address have since been published in local papers, and her name has also been published in the national press.

Conference acknowledges that while there is always the possibility that some of the women in these cases were lying, their willingness to undergo the stress and distress of a court case make this highly unlikely. As it is very rare for a non-custodial sentence to be given to someone found guilty of perverting the course of justice, conference is concerned that the impact of these cases will be that rape victims will now be even more reluctant to report to the police; for fear that they could be the ones that end up in prison rather than the rapist.

On January 9th 2007, a debate took place in the House of Lords, during which the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith was forced to repeatedly defend the rights of rape victims to anonymity; during the debate he said that no woman could be named unless Parliament amended the current legislation, however he also acknowledged that the Government is considering how to stop repeated allegations of rape, but insisted that no decision has been made yet.

In addition to the small number of horrific cases in which women are jailed for perverting the course of justice, there is a much larger issue of the depiction of women, especially women who have experienced sexual violence, in the media. Key details are often omitted, such as in the cited case where the media chose to ignore the fact that the woman was a lesbian and therefore unlikely to consent to sex with a man whom she had only met minutes earlier. Other cases refer to women “changing their story”, when they withdraw allegations a few days before a court case. The coverage fails to highlight that because women are merely witnesses for the crown in most sexual violence cases, this is the only way they can stop proceedings which they may understandably be very anxious about.

On 12th December 2006, Justice for Women and the Lllith Project held an emergency meeting to discuss this issue, and to launch a new campaign aimed at counteracting the media representation of women as “rape liars”, and at challenging the police and CPS decision to bring charges against women in failed rape cases. Justice for Women is a feminist organisation that campaigns and supports women who have fought back against or killed violent male partners, however, due to their concern at the current situation regarding women being charged with perverting the course of justice, they have decided to extend their work into this area. The Lllith Project, part of Eaves Housing, is a research, campaigning and development project that works on all issues of violence against women. Both organisations are voluntary funded, and have limited resources with which to run such an important campaign.

1)Conference therefore instructs the National Women’s Committee to actively support:

2justice for Women and the Lllith Project campaigns;

3the National Women’s Committee to work with the National Executive Council, Labour Link and other appropriate UNISON bodies, to highlight the worrying precedent that has been set in the House of Lords and the likely negative impact this will have on rape victims, and to lobby the UNISON Parliamentary group to oppose any proposals from Government to abolish anonymity for women victims of sexual violence;

4)publish the findings of the Economic and Social Research Council in relevant UNISON press;

5)campaign for a change to the legal definition of rape and a strengthening of the Sexual Offences Act 2003;

6)work to change the stereotypical views of society where rape of intoxicated women occurs.