Rape victims will no longer be required to face live cross-examination in court under reforms announced by Justice Secretary Liz Truss, on Sunday (19 March). The policy, which follows a planned move to pre-recorded evidence in child sex cases across the UK, will take effect from September.
The current system, whereby alleged rape victims are questioned live in court by the accused or their legal representative, has been widely criticised as an ordeal for those affected, who are often subjected to questioning about hugely personal aspects of their lives, such as previous sexual encounters as well as reliving the incident itself.
This aspect of the current system is often cited as one of the reasons many victims of sexual violence are dissuaded from reporting crimes.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Truss said: "There is more we can do to help alleged victims in these cases give the best possible evidence they can give in an environment that is much more suitable than open court."
She added: "At the moment prior sexual history can only be asked about in exceptional circumstances, but sometimes questions can be asked that verge on that territory. If you have the pre-trial cross-examination, much clearer ground rules are set. If a question is asked that is inadmissible, that can be cut out of the tape by the judge."
The new measures, trialled in cases of child sex abuse in three cities, apparently led to a higher number of guilty pleas by defendants, therefore sparing the trauma of a prolonged trial for victims as well as saving money for the taxpayer.
The Department of Justice says rape prosecutions are at record levels, rising to 3,900 in 2015 – 36% more than a decade earlier in 2005. Similarly, prosecutions were up by 11% between 2014 and 2015, to 1,300.
However, campaigners say that one in five women aged between 16-59 experience sexual violence, and the rate of conviction for rape is just 5.7%.
Rape Crisis England & Wales said on Sunday it welcomed the news. In a statement on its website, the charity said: "While more victims and survivors of sexual violence than ever before have been coming forward to seek both specialist services and criminal justice in recent years, the vast majority still choose not to report to the police.
"Through our frontline experience of supporting women and girls who've been raped, sexual abused and sexually assaulted, we know that among the reasons for this is fear of the criminal justice system, including the prospect of giving evidence in open court and of cross-examination.
"Any measure that reduces the trauma of the criminal justice process for victims and survivors is positive."