Opinion: What about justice for women?

The following is a piece from a Liberal Democrat member in England:

I’ve lived with a rape victim.  I know about the nightmares, the sleepwalking, the self-harm, the blackouts, and other unpleasant things I won’t mention.  I’ve seen at first hand the damage rape can wreak upon a woman, and I can’t think of anything offhand that might be worse.

I mention this firstly to explain why this article is posted anonymously, and secondly in consideration of what difference it would have made to the woman I loved and lived with if her attacker had been brought to justice.

It would have made no appreciable difference to her at all.

So whenever I hear the regular complaints about the low conviction rates in rape trials I do wonder what precisely it is that lies behind them.  Obviously it is highly desirable that rapists are brought to trial, convicted and put safely away. However our justice system is based on the principle that all are innocent until proven guilty and the requirement that cases are proven beyond reasonable doubt – and rape is notoriously hard to prove.  Conviction rates therefore remain stubbornly low, to the frustration of campaigners for justice for women in particular.  The justice system itself becomes the battleground, which brings me back to the question: what do we mean by justice in this context?

The current focus in this battleground is the proposal to extend anonymity in rape cases to the defendant as well as the victim.  Supporters of the proposal contend that the damage done to an innocent defendant in a rape case is sufficiently serious that defendants (who are innocent until proven guilty) should be granted anonymity until and unless they are convicted.  On the other hand opponents consider that extending anonymity to rape defendants implicitly suggests that false accusations of rape are more common than they are, and that the damage done to a small number of innocent men accused but then acquitted of rape is outweighed by the damage done to the large numbers of rape victims whose attackers evade justice.

A few days ago I was involved in an online conversation with a noted Liberal Democrat feminist and recent parliamentary candidate on this very subject. I remarked that the damage done to raped women would not be undone by persecuting a small number of innocent men and asked her to define exactly what she meant by justice. She ran away.

I still need an answer, though.  Is “Justice for Women” the same as “Revenge for Women”, or is it something else?  If a desire for vengeance is the one thing that helps a rape victim to get through the day then I’m not going to be the one to take it away from her – but equally I’m not going to help her subvert the criminal justice system to get her revenge. I would like to think, however, that all liberals could agree that justice is not the same thing as revenge; justice is about making things right, insofar as they can be made right.  A murdered child can never be brought back – but the murderer can be prevented from being in a position ever to murder (or even to see) a child again.  That’s the very best that the justice system can achieve.  But if the murderer cannot be caught and convicted there is no justice at all in punishing another for the crime.  What is the best justice that can be achieved for those women whose rapists cannot be caught, or convicted?  Is the best answer to this really that there will be a class of men out there who are nominally innocent but who nevertheless carry with them the public stigma that they have been accused but acquitted of rape?  That we should tolerate instead a second class conviction: that where trial by jury fails we should instead resort to trial by media? Is “Daily Mail” justice really the way to go?

There is, moreover, a still more insidious element to all this to which liberals should be alert and to my mind unquestionably reject.  For wholly justifiable reasons with which we can all sympathise, huge efforts have been made to encourage victims of rape to come forward and report the crimes they have suffered.  But the effort to de-stigmatise rape victims has had an unfortunate by-product: we are no longer allowed to consider the possibility that a woman may lie about rape – and this is such an article of faith that the implications on the justice system are profound.  If a woman is incapable of lying about rape then it follows inescapably that any man accused of rape by a woman must therefore be guilty.  This, aside from being a self-evident absurdity, drives a coach and horses through the presumption of innocence, regardless of whether rape defendants are granted anonymity or not.  Of course when challenged, campaigners will admit that false accusations of rape occur, albeit rarely.  But there is a universe of difference between “Women never lie about rape”  and “Women seldom lie about rape”.  Defendants remain innocent until proven guilty, and are entitled to a defence.  This necessarily implies the right to contradict one’s accuser – which is one reason why anonymity for rape victims was introduced in the first place.

There are no easy answers here, but it ought to be common ground that the notion of increasing injustice without ameliorating suffering represents no kind of solution at all. Better to seek to reduce the incidence of rape, to bolster support for rape victims and to seek ways of strengthening prosecutions without undermining the integrity of the criminal justice system.  Condoning the persecution of innocent people as acceptable collateral damage in the Gender War is not an option that liberals should be willing to accept.  Defendants in rape trials should be entitled to anonymity until convicted.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I agree wholeheartedly, based on the simple principle of fairness. Stigmatising innocent people, however few, does nothing to help victims of rape.

    There is a legitimate argument to be had about whether since rape victims are granted anonymity, victims of other crimes should be as well. There is also a legitimate argument that all people accused of crime of any sort should perhaps be granted anonymity on the basis of innocent until proven guilty. It’s hard to argue that being falsely accused of rape is worse than being falsely accused of child sex abuse, for instance.

    But I think these arguments, whilst frequently brought up in the same discussion, are irrelevant to the very narrow question of anonymity for rape defendants. On this particular issue, the claimant is granted anonymity so basic justice should demand that the accused is treated the same way.

  • I agree entirely with Catherine, in the interests of justice, and natural justice, if one party is given anonymity then both parties should be granted it; or neither party.

    Just as rape victim campaigners claim that granting the accused anonymity will stop other victims coming forward, so granting anonymity to the accuser will stop others coming forward who have also been falsely accused by that person. To turn the campaigners argument on it’s head, there would be many more women prosecuted for bearing false witness if they weren’t granted anonymity and know one knew they could come forward.

    There is no justice if the system doesn’t treat both parties equally.

  • Andrew Suffield 30th May '10 - 2:52pm

    There’s an insidious sort of bias here, which you’ll see in most of the posturing and op-ed articles: that all rape victims are women and all rapists are men.

    Campaigners will no doubt claim that this combination is more frequent, which is true to some extent – but it’s also true that most low-level crime in the US is committed by black people, so the legitimacy of that argument as an excuse is not very compelling. Meanwhile, everybody is desperately trying to pretend that the male/male combination is insignificantly rare.

    Take a good look at the articles you read on this topic, and see how many of them carry this bias unthinkingly. It says something about the authors.

  • @ Andrew Suffield

    Agreed, the same would also apply to domestic violence.

  • It is a fake argument that those who don’t want to grant anonymity to the accused want revenge by trial by media. . The main concern is that it will hamper police investigations e.g Wourboys and the reasons for granting anonymity is to ensure men or women (who fear the humiliation of being on trial for their sexuality) come forward. To say that the anonymity of one equals the anonymity of the other is not true. If a man is found not guilty his name is cleared but the woman or man is besmearched as a liar, even if the problem was lack of evidence.

    The change in law is a retrograde step. It was not in any party manifesto and reflects a male bias of sympathy for the accused in a rape case rather than the victim. It is not surprising that those advocating anonymity don’t even consider male rape. If the defendant is prevented from snooping into the rape victims private life to try and stain their character then anonymity of the victim may not be such an issue. But the courts are notorious in allowing this. When i accused a man of indecent assault aged 14 years the policeman pointed to my short skirt and said what do I expect – fortunately he had a string of convictions. This is the public climate in which rape victims have to bring a claim.

  • I agree with this piece.

  • If the fact that a rape complainant has anonymity and the defendant doesn’t is such a breach of fairness as some suggest, then why have no cases on the subject have been brought and won under the Human Rights Act (right to a fair tria/innocence until proven guilty)? Back in 2001 it was suggested by a Law Society representative that there was an argument for such a case under the right to a fair trial (http://bit.ly/cRA5ts , scroll to the end). Nine years later and nothing that I can see, although cases have been brought under the HRA re. other aspects of rape law . I think that shows that there’s no good human rights case for this proposal.

    I’m a Lib Dem btw – just against this anonymity proposal. I’m still wondering how it made the coalition agreement, plucked out of a 2006 policy and having been nowhere in the manifesto.

  • and re.it not being in the manifesto of either coalition party – I think this is important. Obviously, over the course of a parliament a government will introduce legislation that wasn’t in the election manifesto. But for this to form part of a coalition agreement written days after the election when it wasn’t in either party’s manifesto is, I think, bad form.

  • “we are no longer allowed to consider the possibility that a woman may lie about rape”

    Liberals like us may not think so, and when I first saw the argument that “this policy sends out the signal that women lie”, my first thought was – you what? surely no one thinks that any more? why is the signal sent out so important anyway? But then I realised that juries are endlessly encouraged to think that way by barristers who take rape myths and milk them for all they’re worth -and if rape is the only crime where the defendant is allowed anonymity, then that will certainly strengthen that idea. When I further realised the disadvantages that complainants are at during a trial, any initial idea that I’d had that the anonymity proposal was a good idea totally evaporated.

  • If this law is passed I will leave the lib dems for good. Women are fifty percent of the population and have less than nineteen percent representation in government. The rape conviction rate is pitifully low, no doubt because, in number terms, we are underrepresented in the legal system. Mens view on false accusation are not very important, as very little rape is actually reported, of that which is, the police seldom bring the case to court because they know the biases in the system means they are very unlikely to win. The cases that do get to court have a 5% conviction rate.
    It is rare for a woman to report rape, let alone falsely accuse. So we have an unlikely scenario outweighing what amounts to an atrocity on a national scale; because the unlikely scenario contains the concerns of men.

  • @ranters paradise
    Andrew appears not to take issue with the original piece, but with the appearance that women are the only victims, in many articles concerning rape the focus is mostly if not always on female rape with male rape practically ignored, he may have a valid point but perhaps a point better raised elsewhere as a separate issue
    Your comment ‘MEN are the reason male/male rape doesn’t get spoken about. What does it say about men?
    This argument is weak and frankly insulting and shows a complete lack of understanding, and yes before you ask I do have experience in this field

  • Ursa claims that men’s views on false accusation are not important. She’s right – they are totally irrelevant as are women’s views on false accusation. This is because the justice system is based on the principle that all are innocent until proven guilty – therefore *all* accusations of *anything* – rape, treason, murder, stealing apples, whatever – are false until proven otherwise. This creates a real headache when prosecuting rape cases but without the presumption of innocence there is no justice system to speak of.

    For the benefit of Paul Neat, I am aware of the argument that granting anonymity would impede other investigations but ignored it because I believe it to be nonsense. The police and CPS preumably have other ways of finding out about rape acquittals than by reading the newspapers. This is just another way of undermining the presumption of innocence.

    I can’t quite believe I’m having to explain this to liberals, but the presumption of innocence is the bedrock of a liberal justice system because it is designed to protect the weak from the strong by guaranteeing everyone a defence. Even rape defendants.

  • @ The Author
    Very well said

  • >If a man is found not guilty his name is cleared

    After several months of, at best, being ostracised by neighbours, friends, colleagues.
    Or at worse, spat at, car vandalised, dog mess through the letter box, bricks through the window….
    Look how the great British public reacted when the News of the World publicised the names and addresses of paedophiles.
    When it comes to sex offence allegations, Joe Public really assumes “guilty until proved innocent”. And feels “justified” in vigilante-ism in a way you don’t get with other charges.
    A look at which prisoners in jail have to be segregated for their own safety shows even armed robbers and murderers feel they are “superior beings” to sex offenders.

    And there will always be those who think: “No smoke without fire.” even after acquittal.

    Also. what if he has a family? “Sorry we stuck a brick through your window last month, Mrs Smith: we thought your Pete was a pervert.”

    And yes, I think rape convictions are woefully low. But vigilantes wrecking the lives of the innocent doesn’t help the real victims or bring the real offenders to book.

  • @the author. Obviously I’m totally in favour of the presumption of innocence – it’s a basic human right. But why do we need anonymity for rape defendants to protect that? Why just for rape? Why have no cases been brought under the HRA claiming that a rape defendant’s rights were breached, either because the complainant had anonymity or because there’s “trial by media?”

    (Ursa – don’t know if you made a typo, but the conviction rate for rape cases that get to court is 58%. 5% is the rate for all cases reported. Otherwise I totally agree with you. BTW there

  • @Ursa:

    “The cases that do get to court have a 5% conviction rate.”

    Actually that’s not the case, although it is frequently – wrongly – reported as such in the media. The 5% figure, which is actually 6% now, is the percentage of *reported* rapes that result in a rape conviction. The percentage of reported rapes that result in a conviction either for rape or for a related charge, e.g. indecent assault etc., is 14%. The cases that get to court have a 58% conviction rate.

  • also, while I wouldn’t want to give the police everything they asked for, they’ve indicated that they’re not happy with the proposal: http://www.policeprofessional.com/news.aspx?id=10486

  • I agree with Paul and Valerie.

    I’ve never heard anyone ask why victims of muggings want justice. or what that means. I think our justice system, flawed as it may be, recognises that for wrongdoers (of all crimes) to be punished for their crimes is an important function in preventing vigilantism. If someone behaves poorly, both the victim/s and society has a right to expect that they will be penalised (and rehabilitated).

    Equally, for a rapist to remain undetected and unpunished is scarcely a deterrent from doing it again (and rape is a crime often committed by serial offenders).

    I wonder why so many posters seem so reluctant to concede that false accusations are rare when so many of those who work in the field believe this to be true. It seems clear that many who are tried and acquitted are in fact guilty, a terrible injustice to hundreds of thousands and a poor message to everyone in our society.

  • >But why do we need anonymity for rape defendants to protect that? Why just for rape?

    See my earlier post. Because alleged sex offences bring out the vigilantes.
    Also: alleged sex offenders get bail, whereas those accused of murder (say) are remanded in custody, where the neighbours can’t get at them.

    >It seems clear that many who are tried and acquitted are in fact guilty, a terrible injustice to hundreds of thousands and a poor message to everyone in our society.

    But that’s how our system works. It is deemed better that the guilty sometimes go free than the innocent be locked up.

    The issue with rape, of course, is that in many cases it is the word of the accuser against the accused (and vice versa). Police, CPS etc may not proceed if there’s a poor chance of conviction.
    And under our ‘presumption of innocence’ system, where it’s the word of one person against the other, with no other evidence, the jury has to acquit.

  • The rarity of false accusations of rape is not a relevant consideration. The possibility of a false accusation is all that matters – and as I said before, with the presumption of innocence all accusations are false until proven.

    The reason I ask what justice means in this context is to establish whether we are talking about revenge or something else. The apparent inability of anyone to give me a convincing answer on this leads me to believe that we are pretty much talking about revenge, and if a few innocent people get locked up or have their lives ruined for them, well that’s a small price to pay.

    That, I’m afraid, is nowhere near a good enough justification for overturning the whole basis of the criminal justice system.

  • @Valerie I think once rape has been deemed a special case by granting protected anonymity to the claimant there has to be a very good reason not to extend that to the defendant. I would worry less if campaigners gave any impression of understanding the importance of the presumption of innocence and I find a lot of the discussion around false accusations of rape to be disingenuous.

    Incidentally, I am deeply suspicious of the idea of victims’ justice generally. I supported the release of the Lockerbie bomber Megrahi essentially for the same reason: that judicial process should not be diverted unduly by the demands of victims who are necessarily too close to a situation to be objective. The criminal justice system is not an adjunct to victim support, nor is it a substitute for appropriate counselling. Revenge has no place there.

  • Andrew Suffield 30th May '10 - 10:20pm

    I wonder why so many posters seem so reluctant to concede that false accusations are rare when so many of those who work in the field believe this to be true.

    If you “work in the field” then you pretty much started out from that assumption, so your belief doesn’t really tell us anything. Meanwhile, crime statistics are clear: we have more clearly established cases of false accusations in the UK every year than we do convictions – or acquittals – and those are just the ones that we know about; the strong cultural bias towards assuming such accusations are true is probably hiding some more.

    I am happy to concede that false accusations are somewhere in the vicinity of one in ten cases reported to the police – but noting that I don’t think that’s very “rare”.

    It seems clear that many who are tried and acquitted are in fact guilty, a terrible injustice to hundreds of thousands and a poor message to everyone in our society.

    Have you looked at the actual crime statistics yourself? I ask this because you’re out by a couple of orders of magnitude. About 1 in 25 of reported cases result in acquittals. About the same number result in convictions – and the same number again in guilty pleas. It’s a bit under a thousand acquittals a year. I’m not even going to comment on the disgraceful suggestion that people who are acquitted are clearly guilty.

    If you’re wondering what happened to the rest of the cases: 70% of them are withdrawal of the accuser, absence of evidence (you do need actual evidence of a crime, not just an accusation), or an inability to identify any suspects.

  • You entitle this justice for women but has only a narrow, obsessive concerns for the falsely accused even though this is a tiny group of people. The falsely accused are presumed innocent, and there is not a great deal of evidence of vigilante assault against them. When I reported indecent assault at 14 years old I didn’t do so for revenge. I acted in shock and out of a duty to report a crime to protect other victims. I was humiliated before the man pleaded guilty – had he not then he might have been found not guilty and we would not have known of his record of assaults I don’t think victims motives in reporting a crime is that relevant. What is relevant is that the police consider this would have far-reaching consequences and might impede investigation.

    I don’t agree with your tit for tat approach on anonymity. The singling out this one crime for anonymity needs to be justified on its own merits and you fail to make the case. As has been pointed out the accused could challenge this using the Human Rights Act. The law has deemed that rape victims and children should have the right to anonymity – the case for anonymity for those accused of rape has to be made solely on its own merits and not just simply because you resent rape victims being granted anonymity.

    Victims do have a place in court, and I agree with the right to make impact statements. The system rightly, in my view, do not allow victims to determine sentencing. I would like, however, to see less gender bias in the judicial system as I am not always convinced that the sentencing for rape reflects the crime.

  • The author’s argument is very muddled and so I am not surprised that he doesn’t get the answers he wants. I am not sure it is worth replying. Women report the crime of rape for the same reason other crimes are reported and if there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a trial there may be a court case. This is not the woman’s decision its the crown prosecutor and the presumption of the courts is that the defendant is innocent. Furthermore the media doesn’t suggest the defendant is guilty as to do so would be to risk the success of the court case. If a defendant is found not guilty this is reported without any suggestion that the person is really guilty. There is no persecution of innocent victims in a gender war. The author’s language, whilst purporting to be reasoned, smacks of ideological resentments that appear irrational to me. Megrahi was found guilty and was sentenced to a long prison sentence. Whilst there were questions about the trial these should have been resolved in court. In this case the leniency shown was extraordinary (and almost certainly politically motivated). The victims are all dead but the relatives were clearly divided on the question so once again your opinions come across as very muddled.

  • @Stuart A whole bunch of issues effortlessly dodged. Well done.

  • I am not surprised when presented with rational argument you dodge issues.

  • All the points you raised have been dealt with adequately above in comments by various people, none of whom seem to have had any problem following the argument. All that’s left is the personally insulting stuff. I don’t feed trolls.

  • @Paul Neat. I always find it shocking when alleged liberals claim that one small group of people are in some way expendable, but my OCD is actually trained upon a different target: namely the integrity of the justice system in general and the presumption of innocence in particular.

    You are right that I haven’t made much of a case for extending anonymity but that’s mainly because I am more concerned with challenging some of the appalling arguments against extending it.

    I agree regarding victim impact statements. I have no problem with accommodating the concerns of victims and their families as long as the integrity of the justice system is not undermined.

  • not expendable but balanced ag

    not expendable – but different interests have to be balanced – and in general we name defendants. I think justice is better served by naming rape defendants. You seem to think if people don’t agree with you they are not as good a liberal as you – how arrogant,

  • The policy is flawed. Should those accused of murder and rape also have anonymity? And wouldn’t the neighbourhood in a community know anyway and thats were a whispering campaign is most powerful. I have experienced a whispering campaign against me over a matter supposed to be confidential – the whispering was worse than an open trial would have been.

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