Lord Advocate: Action needed to improve conviction rates in sex cases

·3-min read
A review into how prosecutors handle reports of sexual offences was also commissioned (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Archive)
A review into how prosecutors handle reports of sexual offences was also commissioned (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Archive)

Women may not be getting justice in sexual offence cases, Scotland’s top lawyer has said.

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain QC told the Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday something had to be done to address the low conviction rates in sexual offence cases.

Figures released earlier this year by the Scottish Government show that just 43% of cases of rape and attempted rape in 2019-20 resulted in a conviction rate – compared to an overall rate of 88% for all crimes.

A review by Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian earlier this year issued a number of recommendations for how sexual offence cases are handled, including the creation of specialist courts, given that sexual offence cases now take up 70% of the business dealt with by High Courts across Scotland.

It's a problem that's been with us for a long, long time and we cannot allow it to go on for another 40 years - we've got to do something about it

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain QC

“I want to have a prosecution service that is progressive, humane and delivers for all sections of society,” she told MSPs

“As the independent head of the prosecutions system, it would be fundamentally wrong for me to reject the Lord Justice Clerk’s reasoned and rational recommendations, because all that she seeks to do is to further explore a possible benefit of dealing with a seemingly intractable problem that results in an erosion of public confidence in our system of justice.

“It’s a problem that’s been with us for a long, long time and we cannot allow it to go on for another 40 years – we’ve got to do something about it.”

She added: “We should have a debate in and around all these issues in order to answer the legitimate question raised by the review, which is whether or not there is a proportion of our society that is just not getting justice.

“The conviction rate cannot be ignored and cannot be explained away by the fact that women just cannot be believed.

“The conviction rate in these types of crime is way lower than any other type of crime and something has to be looked at in order to address this issue.”

Dorothy Bain has hit out at the low conviction rate in sexual assault and rape cases (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Archive)
Dorothy Bain has hit out at the low conviction rate in sexual assault and rape cases (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Archive)

However, Ms Bain said any legislative changes would be for MSPs rather than her to decide on.

The Lord Advocate announced to the committee the establishment of a review of how prosecutors deal with reports of sexual offences, to be chaired by Susanne Tanner QC.

The remit of the review will be approved by Ms Bain “in due course”, she told the committee, adding it would “will take into account the views of victims and agencies from across the criminal justice system”.

Meanwhile, the Lord Advocate also sought to reassure MSPs that plea deals would not be struck in courts in an effort to relieve the backlog expected to impact the justice system because of the pandemic.

According to Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) executive director of court operations, David Fraser, the backlog could take up to five years to resolve.

But the Lord Advocate, in response to Tory MSP Russell Findlay, said “soft justice” would not be the answer.

“In relation to the temptation to do a plea deal because of the backlog, I just reject that would be temptation for any prosecutor prosecuting the public interest, it’s certainly not an approach that I would give any support to whatsoever,” she said.

“We need to seek remedies to (the backlog), but it cannot be that soft justice is the answer and I certainly don’t support that.”

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