By Hazel Robertson, UK Feminista Regional Organiser for Scotland
Something miraculous might be happening in the legal landscape of Scotland. Lord Carloway finished his review of the Scottish legal system and amongst the suggested changes was a change to corroboration of evidence. In a nutshell corroboration is a specifically legal caveat in the Scottish system which means that evidence needs to be agreed on by two witnesses or sources. This has long been a quick of the Scottish legal system along with the ‘not proven’ verdict that indicates that there has not been enough evidence- or corroboration of evidence- for a firmly guilty verdict.
So far. So dry. Why is this important?
These oddities of the legal system have conspired to produce Scotland’s dismal rape conviction rate which has stubbornly remained lower than England and Wales’ stubbornly low conviction rate. Obviously, the lack of witnesses to cases of accused rapes makes it difficult to provide corroboration of evidence and ensures a not proven or not guilty verdict. In 2006/07 Scotland’s rape conviction rate was languishing around the 2.9% mark.
In response to Lord Carloway’s report, the Law Society of Scotland’s raised concerns that “Corroboration has been a cornerstone of the Scottish criminal justice system since time immemorial and before such a radical step is taken, there would have to be an overwhelming case for change. In our opinion such a case for change has not been made.”
These sorts of comments are irritating in that they seem to suggest the Scottish legal system is a perfectly stable and effective. Granted the law society of Scotland probably didn’t have rape cases at the forefront of their mind when he made this statement. However, in considering Scotland’s dismal rape conviction rate any change to the legal system which makes it easier for a victim to see justice done is surely welcome.
Although the recommendations in Lord Carloway’s report are very welcome, I certainly don’t want to celebrate this as a victory for women. Anyone who sees that justice is not served because they are in an impossible legal situation of being unable to prove something they know happened, seems like one person too many.
A lot more does need to be done to ensure that rapists are met with the full force of the law. The potential ironing out of the law isn’t the solution but merely the beginning of challenging the lowest rape conviction rate in the country. Legal solutions are not enough; giant societal and cultural shift are needed in collaboration with reforms in the law.
Firstly, rape myths. Rape myths are prevalent and persuasive in everyday life. For instance, I work in a student advice centre and according to my boss it is definitely not okay to lecture students who come into collect rape alarms about how, if they were to be raped, it would statistically be a friend or family member or, most probably, a sexual partner who will be their rapist. I live in one of Scotland’s safest cities and barring occasional isolated incidents sexual assaults by strangers are thankfully rare. By being afraid to walk alone in the dark or being scared of dark alleys or corners of our city young women here are focusing their fear on the outside and not what could potentially be a dangerous situation in their own home. Of course not letting your guard down within your own relationship is ridiculous but not being afraid to be assertive when negotiating consent is essential for young women and men to master. This advert from the Home Office is aimed specifically at young people and gives a more realistic picture of when personal intimacy can turn into a rape situation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gEftWCG5Ow Share this video with your networks to highlight how important understanding the blurry boundaries of rape is.
Secondly, victim blaming. Newly released figures from the Scottish Government has shown the level of reported rapes rise by 19% during the year 2011-2012, but it is widely accepted that the actual numbers will be a lot higher. Perhaps a reason behind this is that rape is often blamed away on feelings that it was somehow deserved. This is perpetuated by suggestions in the media that drunkenness, dress and previous sexual contact somehow negates a women giving consent. Last weekend Edinburgh was host to Slutwalk, which started in direct defiance of comments made by a Toronto Police man in 2011: “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Slutwalk has been controversial as some women object to ‘reclaiming’ that term, however drawing attention the completely unacceptable institutionalised viewpoint is very powerful.
There’s a lot that we, as feminists, can focus on as we challenge rape myths and victim blaming, and this way we can be part of the solution to seeing justice done.