The SNP Government is determined that abusive behaviour and sexual harm will not be tolerated in Scotland and has taken a much-needed step towards its eradication. The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 introduced four new laws which have now come into force.
The new legislation is aimed at improving the way abusive behaviour and sexual harm are dealt with in court, giving more power to judges to help educate jurors. In this respect, judges are now required to give special information to juries in certain sexual offence trials, including where there is a delay in the victim reporting the crime, where there is no evidence of physical resistance by the victim and where the perpetrator has not used physical force.
This is designed to challenge any pre-conceived notions jurors may have about how a person “should” react when the victim of a sexual offence and has been hailed by charities such as Rape Crisis Scotland. Co-ordinator, Sandy Brindley, said:
“Survivors often tell us that during a rape they froze and were unable to fight back or scream. This is a completely natural and common reaction, but not always one that members of the public will necessarily be aware of.
“We welcome the introduction of jury directions in rape cases as a significant step forward. Providing factual information on different reactions to rape should help ensure that verdicts in sexual offence cases are based on the evidence presented, rather than being influenced by assumptions about how rape victims should react.”
The introduction of judicial directions will ensure that, where appropriate, jury members have access to appropriate and relevant information. Research carried out by the SNP Government found that 23% of people thought that if a woman is drunk when attacked she is at least partly responsible and a further 17% felt a woman bore some responsibility if she was wearing revealing clothes. The likelihood that some jury members may share these views, combined with long-standing concerns about the role juror attitudes can play in decision making during rape trials mean that judicial directions are of great importance.
The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 also introduces three other measures designed to improve the justice system’s response to such crime including:
A new statutory aggravation which means courts will be required to take into account whether or not an offence involved abuse of a partner or ex-partner when sentencing an offender.
Extending the law concerning sexual offences against children to allow for prosecution in Scottish courts of offences committed elsewhere in the UK. This will reduce the potential trauma for victims who might otherwise face more than one trial and ensures no-one can escape justice if there is doubt about where an offence was committed.
Extending the power to protect victims from further harassment by allowing a criminal non-harassment order to be imposed in a wider range of circumstances.
Tackling such crimes requires a bold response and speedy and effective enforcement which is why the SNP Government has acted to improve our justice system. By modernising the law we can support victims in accessing justice and ensure perpetrators are properly held to account for their actions.
As victims of sexual offences have increasing confidence in contacting the police, this new requirement for judges to direct juries will make a real difference in enabling juries to approach court evidence in an informed way.
All of the new measures have one thing in common. They will improve the way the justice system responds to abusive behaviour and help ensure perpetrators are clear that their actions will have consequences.