Part 3: Using Evidence of Previous Sexual History in Rape Cases – the Ched Evans case

This is the third and final post on the Ched Evans case (Follow the links for Part 1 and Part 2) and the use of evidence of a complainant’s sexual history in rape trials, Molly Joyce examines the consequences of the Court of Appeal’s decision to give Evans a new trial and the impact his “not guilty” verdict in that retrial may have on the future handling of rape cases and the treatment of complainants in these kinds of cases.

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Using Evidence of Previous Sexual History in Rape Cases: The Ched Evans Case, Part 3

by Molly Joyce

Consequences of the Evans Case

The immediate consequences of the Court of Appeal’s decision (discussed here) was that Evans was granted the right to a retrial. His retrial started on 4 October 2016 and lasted two weeks, with a “not guilty” verdict handed down by the jury on 14 October 2016. The jury deliberated for three hours.[1] This conclusion was reached after a five-year campaign by Evans and his supporters, throughout which he maintained his innocence. The case involved two criminal trials and two appeal court hearings as well as investigations into contempt of court allegations and the prosecution of nine people who named X on social media.[2]

While the matter itself is essentially now concluded, the wider impact of the case remains to be seen. It is clear that it has caused quite a lot of controversy and debate around issues including: the admission of evidence about a complainant’s sexual history; the behaviour of footballers off the pitch and the question of their return to the field if they are found guilty of criminal offences; how complainants in sexual offence cases can be fully assured of their anonymity in the social media age; the wider impact of Twitter and other social media on criminal investigations and trials; and the role of alcohol in these kinds of “he said, she said” cases. All of these issues throw up difficult questions about how we investigate, prosecute and respond to sexual offence allegations, particularly in situations involving high-profile people. In this post, however, I remain focused on the legal implications of this case in regards the issue of admitting evidence of sexual history: I will not discuss the other issues outlined above although they are undoubtedly of equal importance.

Legally, this case does not change anything. The processes used by Evans’ lawyers to get him a retrial have been long established and the exception under which Evans’ lawyers were able to get evidence of X’s previous sexual behaviour admitted and considered by a jury has been in place since 1999.

And yet, there has been considerable commentary suggesting that this case puts the law back “probably about 30 years”.[3] The former Solicitor-General Vera Baird has questioned whether the case is in fact a rarity: she suggests that the Court of Appeal has lowered the bar of what is “admissible and relevant” evidence, thereby encouraging defendants to “check out” Evans’ defence and see if they can find other men who have had sex with the complainant in a “similar” way as with the defendant.[4]

40 female Labour MPs have further written to the Attorney-General to ask that the law be amended so as to stop any move towards the more routine use of a complainant’s sexual history in sexual offence trials. Specifically, the Labour MPs have asked that section 41 YJCEA 1999 be amended so as to specify that sexual history evidence can only be used, under the exception used in Evans’ case, where the similar conduct is unusual and out of the ordinary.[5] In advocating this amendment, the MPs have argued that the Court of Appeal’s decision creates a precedent for the increased use of such evidence in circumstances where such evidence was only ever intended by Parliament to be used in cases involving unusual sexual behaviour. The MPs further emphasised that this particular exception, prior to Evans’ case, had only been used once, in a case where the evidence of the complainant’s sexual history concerned bizarre and unusual sexual conduct with the defendant (namely sex standing up inside a children’s climbing frame).[6] The Attorney-General has acknowledged the legitimacy of these concerns and has suggested that reform of the law could be appropriate. He stated, however, that before it can be decided what changes are needed, a number of things need to be looked: “[w]e need to understand more about the decision in this particular case, we need to understand whether a change in the law is appropriate and, if not, whether it is sensible to look at the guidance that is given to judges about when this evidence is admissible and the guidance that judges give to juries about how that evidence should be used.”[7]

Given that the proposed amendments to section 41 YJCEA 1999 only relate to amending the provision under which the Court of Appeal actually allowed the evidence of sexual history to be admitted in Evans’ case, it may of interest to note that the Court of Appeal also suggested in its judgment that the evidence may have been admissible under another provision, namely exception 1 outlined above. Exception 1 states that evidence of a complainant’s sexual history may be admitted if it relates to a “relevant issue” in the trial and that issue is not an issue of consent. The Court of Appeal accepted that the evidence from Mr O and Mr H regarding X’s sexual behavior may have also been “relevant and admissible” as it related to the relevant issue of Evans’ reasonable belief in X’s consent (“reasonable belief” is not an issue of consent in the sense that it is not about whether X actually consented or was capable of consenting, but rather whether Evans reasonably believed she was consenting).[8] It may therefore be the case that the sexual history evidence used in Evans’ case would have been admitted even if the Court of Appeal had considered the relevant provision as applying only to “unusual” behavior.

The concerns voiced by Vera Baird, the Labour MPs and the Attorney-General himself all highlight the possible negative effect that the Evans case could have on reporting of rape and sexual offences. The concern is that victims will be deterred from reporting these offences to the police for fear of having their private lives and previous sexual activities investigated and scrutinised by lawyers, judges and jurors. This is undoubtedly a very valid concern, although it is interesting to note that the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Criminal Bar Association have suggested that the “over-reaction” of women’s groups and others to this case could in fact be what discourages victims from coming forward. Specifically, the Chair suggested that statements to the effect that the case puts the law back 30 years or creates a “rapists’ charter” is actually what is going to “make people think they daren’t report what’s happened to them.” The Vice-Chair added that the Evans case is wholly exceptional and does not change or relax the law, which continues to state that the introduction of evidence about a complainant’s sexual history is forbidden except in “highly unusual circumstances where the trial would be unfair, and a wrongful conviction might result, if the evidence was not given.” [9]

It is my view that the full impact of this case is not yet known. There is undoubtedly a valid concern that the Court of Appeal’s judgment could indicate a relaxation on the part of the judiciary in allowing the use of evidence about a complainant’s sexual history. On the other hand, the Court of Appeal explicitly acknowledged in their judgment that such evidence should be admitted only in rare cases: it was simply their opinion that this was such a rare case. It is therefore unclear at this point whether the Evans case will in fact result in the increased admission and use of complainants’ sexual history in sexual offence trials. Monitoring how often section 41 YJCEA 1999 is successfully invoked in sexual offence cases would undoubtedly help in determining whether complainants’ sexual history is being considered too often in these kinds of cases and thereby help in deciding whether or not the law needs to be changed.

As regards the concern that the Evans case will discourage victims from reporting sexual offences, this is undoubtedly a very real fear. By all accounts, X’s life was destroyed by the constant abuse she received both online and offline: as a result, she has been given a new identity and has moved from the North Wales area.[10] In addition to this, she has had to endure two criminal trials as well as the humiliation of having two previous sexual partners reveal intimate details of her sexual behaviour. There can be no doubt that serious consideration needs to be given to how we protect complainants in sexual offence cases from having their identities illegally published on social media: one possibility is to introduce harsher penalties for those who engage in such conduct.[11] As regards the sexual history aspect, as the above discussion indicates, it is a rare case in which such evidence is admitted and it should be made clear to the general public and potential victims that such evidence is not routinely admitted and that the Evans case was a rarity which should not discourage anyone from reporting suspected rape or sexual abuse. Having said this, if a trend does emerge that indicates the case has resulted in an increased admission of such evidence, that will need to be looked at and potential reforms may need to be introduced in order to ensure complainants are protected from overly-extensive and unwarranted intrusion into their personal lives.

Conclusion

I wrote this blog in order to explain the legal rules that allowed Evans his retrial and allowed him to introduce evidence regarding X’s previous sexual history, eventually leading to his acquittal. The fact is, Evans was acquitted of the allegations of rape made against him and the process he undertook to win this acquittal did not occur by any exceptions made for him particularly. He followed the normal legal processes in order to obtain his appeal hearing before the Court of Appeal and he utilised existing legislative provisions in order to use evidence about X’s previous sexual behaviour as part of his defence. At his retrial, the prosecution was simply unable to persuade the jury, so as to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt, that X had been unable to consent or that Evans had not reasonably believed she had consented. He was acquitted fairly and in line with our criminal justice rules and standards. While his retrial and eventual acquittal would undoubtedly have been much harder to get had he been a poorer man without the significant funding needed to hire private investigators and a top legal appeals team, it is no great surprise that money often can make the difference between conviction and acquittal in the criminal justice system.

Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of this case then, alongside the impact it has had on X’s life, is the fact that its high-profile nature, and the confusion around the legal intricacies of the case, has confirmed many people’s suspicion that rich and powerful men will get away with sexual crimes they have committed. In my view, the Evans case should not be taken as an example of this: he was acquitted squarely in line with the rules of criminal law and the admission of evidence about X’s previous sexual behaviour was exceptional and pertained to the specific facts and circumstances of this case. It should be made clear to the public that this case does not change the law on sexual offences or the laws around consent, and potential victims, although they should be aware of the potential impact any criminal trial could have on them, should not be deterred from reporting sexual offences as a result.

A Note on the Women Are Boring blog

Women Are Boring is dedicated to disseminating interesting research, opinion and analysis by interesting women.  As with all things worth doing, we are aware that research is debatable and worthy of contestation. This is something we encourage. As such, the opinions and views shared are those of each individual article’s author.

[1] See “Timeline of rape allegations against Ched Evans” ITV News 14 October 2016, available at: http://www.itv.com/news/2016-10-14/timeline-of-rape-allegations-against-ched-evans/.

[2] See “Ched Evans: Will footballer’s rape case change anything?” BBC News 14 October 2016, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-37624008.

[3] See “Law for rape victims could be amended after Ched Evans case, Attorney General reveals” The Telegraph 27 October 2016, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/27/law-for-rape-victims-could-be-amended-after-ched-evans-case-atto/.

[4] Vera Baird, “We cannot allow the courts to judge rape by sexual history” The Guardian 17 October 2016, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/17/courts-judge-rape-sexual-history-ched-evans-case.

[5] Rowena Mason, “Female Labour MPs call for legal change following Ched Evans retrial” The Guardian 23 October 2016, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/23/female-labour-mps-write-to-attorney-general-over-ched-evans-case.

[6] The letter sent to the Attorney General is available to read here: https://twitter.com/jessphillips/status/790541138939744257/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw.

[7] See “Law concerning use of sexual history in rape trials ‘could be reformed’” The Guardian 27 October 2016, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2016/oct/27/law-concerning-use-of-sexual-history-in-trials-could-be-reformed.

[8] Chedwyn Evans v R [2016] EWCA Crim 452, [72].

[9] See “Barristers say ‘over-reaction’ to Ched Evans case counterproductive” The Guardian 18 October 2016, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/18/criminal-barristers-over-reaction-ched-evans-counterproductive-victims-sex-assault.

[10] See “‘A DIRTY LITTLE B****’ Ched Evans’ supporters troll his accuser as footballer is found not guilty of rape” The Sun 14 October 2016, available at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1980032/ched-evans-supporters-troll-his-accuser-as-footballer-is-found-not-guilty-of-rape/.

[11] In regard the people who published details of X’s name on Facebook and Twitter, they were charged with publishing material likely to lead members of the public to identify the complainant in a rape case, contrary to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, and each fined £624: a fine was apparently the harshest penalty the court could impose for the charge. See “Ched Evans rape case: nine fined over naming of footballer’s victim” The Guardian 5 November 2012, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/nov/05/ched-evans-rape-naming-woman.

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