Prejudice still at large in our courts

Fifteen years ago, Sue Lees, for professional reasons, arrived at
court to observe a murder trial. It was delayed, so she filled in
time at an adjoining court. By chance, a rape trial was in process.
A woman was facing a barrage of highly intrusive questions about
her sexual history. Sue was appalled at the ferocity of the attack
– and so a campaign was born.

It’s rare in modern times for one person to be able to affect
public policy but Sue, who died on September 17, aged 61,
fundamentally changed the way in which rape victims are treated by
British courts.

Originally a social worker, she later moved into academia. In 1996,
her book Carnal Knowledge, republished by the Women’s Press,
resulted in the government restricting evidence concerning a
woman’s past sexual history, although some judges persist.

She made several documentaries highlighting the appallingly low
conviction rate and the practice of some serial rapists who
befriend women, rape them within hours of meeting, and successfully
argue that consensual sex has taken place. She fought for a number
of reforms including specialist judges to handle rape trials.

On Monday, the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality,
launched a year-long investigation into women and the criminal
justice system. Among the factors that prompted the commission is
the issue of rape and the dearth of women among senior judges –
eight out of 100 in the High Court. But also welcome would be an
inquiry into the judiciary’s treatment of Asian men. Six young
Asians are now on trial in Preston, Lancashire. They have pleaded
not guilty to charges of violent disorder and carrying offensive
weapons – offences allegedly carried out during the riots in
Burnley in June last year. A local petition, signed by over 1,800,
claims that the men were acting in defence of their

Trials which followed the riots in Bradford and Oldham have
resulted in draconian sentencing – young men with no previous
convictions are now serving up to eight years in jail. What’s
required is an individual with Sue Lees’ meticulous methodology to
examine a range of cases involving Asian defendants and to compare
outcomes and sentencing with that meted out to white males.

“An analysis of rape trials raises fundamental questions about the
status of women and principles of equal rights,” Sue Lees wrote. I
suspect an analysis of violent disorder trials involving Asians
might raise similarly disturbing worries about racism and the
principle of justice.

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