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New legal guidance for prosecutors on rape and serious sexual offences

New legal guidance for prosecutors has been produced tackling misconceptions about the exchange of naked selfies and ‘hook-up’ dating websites.

The guidance produced by the Crown Prosecution Service is part of a wide-ranging revision of legal guidance for prosecutors on rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) which is being launched for public consultation. It is updating the 2012 version to reflect modern life and includes guidance on dealing with digital material, as well as why sexual assault victims may remain in contact with their attacker.

The suggested changes aim to reflect the changing world, especially the growth of the digital technology and its impact on sexual behaviours and encounters.

Siobhan Blake, CPS rape lead said: “There have been massive changes to the way people live their lives in the last 10 years and this has undoubtedly transformed the way people interact, date and communicate with sexual partners.

“Rape remains one of the most complex criminal offences and that is why this updated legal guidance addresses 39 common myths and stereotypes.

“As dramatic technological advances have changed the way people meet and connect, it’s vital those in the criminal justice system understand the wider, social, context of these changes.

“For example, many teenagers believe that sending explicit photos or videos is a part of everyday life. Our prosecutors must understand this and challenge any implication that sexual images or messages equate to consent in cases of rape of serious sexual violence,” she added.

The CPS has worked closely with victim support groups to update the myths and stereotypes guidance. A project focused on reasons for lower conviction rates in cases involving the 18-24 age group and sought expert views on what might be driving the trend.

The project found that some established myths and stereotypes are still common, such as the belief that wearing a short skirt is proof of implied consent. However, changing use of technology has led to the emergence of new myths, linked for example, to sharing of explicit selfies, use of dating apps, and casual sex.

The refreshed guidance aims to support CPS lawyers as they build the strongest possible cases to put before the court. Key changes include:

  • The impact of trauma, in particular, how the memory of a victim or complainant can be affected. It is crucial that prosecutors understand the impact and are able to present the prosecution case in a way which contextualises this for a jury.
  • Reasonable lines of enquiry including guidance on striking the appropriate balance between privacy and a thorough investigation. It focuses on obtaining early advice and the need for investigators and prosecutors to work together from the earliest stage in order to build strong cases and escalation processes.
  • Changes have also been made to guidance when considering cases involving same sex sexual violence, and when there are victim vulnerabilities, with a focus on psychological and mental health issues.

Fay Maxted, Chief Executive of the Survivors Trust, said: “Negative stereotypes and myths about rape victims are pervasive in society, creating a toxic environment where victims and survivors fear they will be judged or disbelieved, and where many survivors have experienced victim blame as a result. For this reason, many survivors never report or delay reporting. We therefore welcome the proposal to include information that will dispel misconceptions and misunderstandings with an up-to-date awareness of the way trauma can impact on behaviour and how to ensure a sensitive response to victims/survivors.”

Siobhan Blake added: “We share the public’s concern about the disparity between the number of rape and serious sexual offences reported and those cases getting to court, and are determined to make significant changes to improve that for survivors of these appalling crimes.

“Clear, up to date guidance is crucial to help our specialist prosecutors make fair and effective decisions and make sure that justice is delivered in every case for victims and alleged perpetrators.”

The draft legal guidance and public consultation will run until midnight on 18 January 2021.

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