Baroness Stern's long-awaited review of the way rape cases are handled in England and Wales was published today. It criticises an excessive focus on "misleading" conviction rates, and recommends that victim support should be as much a priority as increasing convictions.
Stern said that what victims "felt was really important was not in the end if they could get a conviction. What they said was, 'We still feel we want to be believed.' "
It is certainly true that a victim should not be abandoned by the authorities because police feel that their case is unlikely to lead to a conviction.
However, Stern's comments about conviction rates and -- particularly -- the statistics, could be rather dangerous. This is shown by the Daily Mail's ranting, skewed coverage of the story today. It opens with this:
Harriet Harman was ordered to stop misleading the public about rape by an official inquiry report yesterday.
The Equalities Minister was accused of pumping out unreliable figures about the low number of rapists brought to justice, thus discouraging victims from reporting attacks.
The review by Baroness Stern appeared to put an end to years of claims by ministers that laws and criminal procedures for dealing with rape need radical reform because only 6 per cent of complaints end in a conviction.
While this implies that the real story is Harriet Harman spearheading a plot to mislead the public, it boils down to a dispute about which statistics should be used. The oft-cited figure (supposedly "misleading"), is that just 6 per cent of reported rape cases end with a conviction for rape.
Stern suggests that instead, we should look at the number of reported cases that end in a conviction not just for rape, but for other related crimes, which is 14 per cent. She adds that 58 per cent of those cases that get to court result in a conviction.
"Foul play" favours rapists
It is a complex matter. On the one hand, Stern's argument, that quoting the shockingly low 6 per cent conviction rate figure will deter people from reporting the crime, contains an element of sense. On the other hand, is it not more "misleading" to give victims an inaccurate picture of what they will be up against?
Yes, a conviction for a related crime is something, but it is not what many women (or men) are looking for. Moreover, the 58 per cent figure relates only to the small number of cases that actually make it to court.
"What she's proposing is to cover up what's happening in the criminal justice system just at the time when women are finally getting the truth out," Ruth Hall of Women Against Rape told the Guardian. I'm inclined to agree.
The unpleasant language of the Daily Mail article suggests that this report has finally laid to rest the Big Rape Conspiracy, proving once and for all that we don't need to interrogate and improve the way in which the justice system deals with rape.
Just reread that last sentence, which says that the review has "put an end to years of claims by ministers that laws and criminal procedures for dealing with rape need radical reform". This sense of foul play is enforced by a clipping that accompanies the online version of the piece, criticising Harman's "single-minded pursuit of an equality agenda", as though we can safely discredit the argument that there are serious problems with our attitudes to rape.
It has been slow, but there have been improvements in the way that rape is handled. The 6 per cent figure is shocking, but it is shocking because it is true. To sugar-coat it at this juncture would be to risk taking many steps backward.