Rape survivor ‘Miss M’ (who cannot be named for legal reasons) has launched a campaign to scrap the controversial ‘third verdict’ in the Scottish legal system, a move which could help thousands of women seeking justice.
Currently, juries in Scotland have the option of returning a verdict of ‘guilty’, ‘not guilty’ or ‘not proven’ based on a centuries-old system where juries were only expected to decide if evidence proved a crime had occurred, not to make the moral judgment of guilt. This third option gives juries and judges a loophole; they can be sure the accused is guilty but decide that evidence is not strong enough. This option is widely used in cases of rape and sexual assault, where juries are willing to say that they believe the victim but unwilling to punish the assailant.
Miss M was horrified when her rapist, Stephen Coxon (it is legal to name him), walked free with a ‘not proven’ but she decided she wasn’t going to allow this and took the matter to civil courts, winning a landmark case for £80,000 in damages. More importantly, though, the judge stated he categorically believed she had been raped. Now she and Rape Crisis Scotland have teamed up to launch the End Not Proven campaign to get rid of this archaic law and bring the court system in line with the rest of the UK and Europe. They are seeking testimonials from anyone who has been affected by a ‘not proven’ verdict and are being supported by Engender, Zero Tolerance, the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre and Scottish Women’s Aid.
This news comes in the same week that Max Hill, director of public prosecutions was forced to try and defend a 23% drop in the number of rape charges brought against assailants, which is not reflected in the number of rapes being perpetrated or reported. Also this week the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is appealing for changes in the way Irish courts deal with the victims of rape after the jury in her case was asked to remember that she had been wearing a lacy thong, meaning she must have been ‘open to meeting someone’. A study in 2016 found that 9% of Irish people did not believe they needed consent to have sex with someone if that person was dressed provocatively. In courts in England and Wales, Judges can order the jury to ignore evidence based on this kind of nonsensical stereotype.
This isn’t a new problem either. In 2002, 17-year-old Lindsay Armstrong killed herself after the ordeal of giving evidence in her rape case. Her rapist’s lawyer questioned her for hours and forced her to hold up the underwear she was wearing when she attacked. Her parents said it made her feel she had been raped all over again. Elspeth White of the Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in Edinburgh has argued that there should be a separate courts system with specially trained lawyers and judges to deal with such sensitive cases.
It’s clear that across the UK laws need to be brought into line so rape victims aren’t being treated differently based on where their case is being tried. Hopefully, this latest string of high profile cases will force governments to listen. As Elspeth White said, ‘I don’t know how the defense lives with themselves.’