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This Is Why Harriet Harman Wants To Stop Rape Complainants Being Questioned On Their Sexual History

"I think what you have here is a battle between the actual reality that women are facing and those who are seeking to defend the system in a way which is completely indefensible," Harman told BuzzFeed News.

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Clara Molden / PA Wire/PA Images

Veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman has hit back at criticism from lawyers over a new cross-party campaign to protect rape complainants from being questioned about their previous sexual history in court.

The former Labour solicitor general told BuzzFeed News that the backlash on Twitter was "really disappointing" and warned that women were being forced to give evidence that "was nothing to do with the case in hand" but about "smearing [their] character".

Harman joined with Dame Vera Baird, also a former solicitor general who is now Northumbria police and crime commissioner, in parliament on Monday to hear from representatives of sexual violence support services about what can be done.

They are leading calls for reform of section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which is supposed to protect alleged victims by limiting barristers' ability to raise women's previous sexual history in court.

The defence must make an application to the judge if they intend to use someone's sexual history in court.

Research commissioned by Baird found that lawyers used sexual history as evidence in more than a third of rape cases that were observed over the course of 18 months at Newcastle crown court – although the methodology of the research has been strongly criticised.

The sexual history of complainants was questioned in 11 out of 30 rape trials at Newcastle crown court between January 2015 and June 2016, according to the report.

But the cross-party campaign was met with scepticism and even dismay from some lawyers who poured scorn on Baird's research and raised fears that restricting what evidence can be heard in court could create miscarriages of justice.

Don’t be misled, or worse deterred. Harriet Harman and Vera Baird are again relying on poor quality studies and unr…

But nothing that Vera Baird or Harriet Harman has produced or cited provides a meaning evidential basis for calling…

The idea that rape complainants are ever cross-examined on the basis that "you are a married woman who has had affa…

@Barristerblog @HarrietHarman No barrister defending in a rape trial would ask questions such as those HH was prete…

At the campaign launch on Monday, Harman told BuzzFeed News: "I think the backlash is really disappointing because everybody should be concerned about justice, nobody should be supporting the idea of miscarriages of justice, and if a woman is forced to give evidence that is nothing to do with the case in hand but is prejudicial, then that is a miscarriage of justice.

"I think what you have here is a battle between the actual reality that women are facing and those who are seeking to defend the system in a way which is completely indefensible. You'll see there's real determination here and we will make progress on this."

Harman added: "This is not evidence which tells you anything about the rape; this is evidence which is about smearing her character. This is not about lack of evidence; this is about evidence which should not go anywhere near the court, because whether she's had sex with X, Y, or Z is not any evidence with whether she had sex with someone altogether different."

Labour MP Stella Creasy, who also attended the event, said critics should engage with the process, rather than immediately dismissing Baird's research.

"I think the very powerful point that Harriet and Vera are making is be in the room – be in the room when these cases are being heard, because that's when you see what is actually happening," she said.

"Just dismissing out of hand people from across the country working with victims of sexual violence all saying that they're seeing this isn't an acceptable response.

"It's not a critique of the barristers, it's a critique of the culture in which they're operating in, and I hope that they will engage because it's not a great start to just dismiss out of hand the concerns that are being raised."

The government last month published a review of more than 300 rape cases, which found that in 92% of them, there was no questioning on previous sexual history. They said this proved there was no need for a change to the law.

But Harman and Baird have written to the Ministry of Justice and the attorney general to argue that the analysis was "completely flawed".

A group of barristers are due to meet with Harman and Baird to discuss their concerns on Tuesday.

@JamesPSVine @BarristerSecret @VeraBaird @Queenofjustice @RebeccaHerber44 A delegation including @Queenofjustice &…

Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Emily Ashton at

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