In the Media

'Acquaintance' rapists to receive lighter sentences

PUBLISHED June 8, 2006

Rapists whose victims say no after already consenting to some sexual familiarity will receive lesser sentences from the courts under guidelines published yesterday.

In an apparent attempt to differentiate so-called "acquaintance rape" from stranger assaults, the Sentencing Guidelines Council (SGC) said culpability should be reduced if the offender was engaged in consensual sexual activity with the victim immediately before the rape.

However, the new guidelines - which every court is expected to follow - did not specify what such behaviour might involve.

The SGC, chaired by Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, said that in all sentencing for rape, the same starting points should apply whether or not the victim and the offender were acquaintances. This follows existing case law which states that "acquaintance rape" and "relationship rape" should be treated the same as attacks by strangers.

But there will be a reduction in the jail term where there had been sexual activity before the assault and the woman had objected to intercourse at the last moment.

In its overhaul of sexual offences in 2003, the Government ruled out introducing a new offence of "date rap" which supporters saw as a way of securing convictions for sexual assault in circumstances where juries are reluctant to convict for rape.

Less than 10 per cent of rape trials end in a conviction, especially when there has been evidence of a prior sexual relationship between the accused and the complainant.

In its report, the SGC said: "Whether the offender is an acquaintance, an ex-partner or a current partner is not, of itself, relevant to consideration of the starting point for sentence.

"Any rape is a traumatic and humiliating experience and, although the particular circumstances in which the rape takes place may affect the sentence imposed, the starting point for sentencing should be the same."

In cases of a single offence of rape, the starting points for imprisonment should be five years if the victim is over 16, eight years if aged over 13 but under 16 and 10 years when under 13.

These starting points would be higher where there are aggravating factors such as abduction, gang rape or sustained attacks.

However, the guidance added: "The fact that a rape was perpetrated by someone known to the victim and that it was immediately preceded by mutually agreed sexual activity must have some relevance for sentencing purposes.

"Where the victim is over the age of 16, an offender's culpability will be less if the offender and victim were engaged in consensual sexual activity immediately before the offence took place.'

"Anyone involved in consensual non-penetrative activity has the right to refuse to engage in penetrative sex and an offender who takes no notice of a victim's wishes is guilty of rape."

The report said it did not expect the new guidelines to result in lesser sentences for rapists. In 2004, more than 70 per cent of custodial sentences were for more than five years, with 86 per cent being over four years. The average sentence was 7.5 years.

"There is no reason to suppose that the average length of sentence will be reduced as a result of any of the measures in the Act or the recommendations for starting points set out in these guidelines," the report added.

Sir Igor Judge, the SGC's deputy chairman, said: "These guidelines emphasise the seriousness with which sexual offences should be treated by sentencing judges."

"Although the purpose of these guidelines is to achieve a consistent level of sentencing for the same type of offence, they cannot deal with the specific impact of each individual offence, which has to be taken into account by the sentencing judge."

Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, who sits on the SGC, said: "The guidelines should not lead to any reductions in the average length of sentence imposed. Indeed they recommend higher sentences if aggravating circumstances - such as the extreme youth or age of a victim - apply."

The independent SGC, which was set up two years ago to boost public confidence in sentences, also set out instructions to courts for more than 50 other different types of sex offence. Some, such as indecent exposure and a new offence of ''voyeurism'', would normally receive a community sentence.