As It Happens

Scottish activist joins sexual assault survivors in call to drop 'not proven' verdict

Activist Sandy Brindley says it's time Scotland got rid of a century-old verdict that falls somewhere between guilty and not guilty — a verdict that she says is used disproportionately in sexual assault cases.

Scotland has 3 options for a verdict: guilty, not guilty and not proven

Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland is supporting Miss M's campaign to get rid of the not proven verdict. (Submitted by Sandy Brindley)
Listen6:13

Read Story Transcript

Activist Sandy Brindley says it's time Scotland got rid of a century-old verdict that falls somewhere between guilty and not guilty — a verdict that she says is used disproportionately in sexual assault cases.

In Scotland, there are three options for a verdict in a criminal trial: guilty, not guilty and not proven. 

"It means the exact same thing as a not guilty verdict," Brindley, chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

"It is an acquittal, and there are no legal repercussions at all for the accused."

Brindle is backing a campaign to abolish the not proven verdict, which was launched by a woman known only as Miss M.

In 2015, a jury found a criminal case against the man accused of sexually assaulting the former St. Andrews University student not proven.

"She simply could not come to terms with the idea of just not getting justice for what had happened," said Brindley, who is a friend of Miss M's.

"She was let down by the justice system and the not proven verdict was part of that."

I think what's clear is that more and more rape survivors are coming out and saying: 'This verdict was devastating.'- Sandy Brindley, Rape Crisis Scotland

Miss M made the unprecedented decision to sue the man, Stephen Coxen, in civil court.

In October, a sheriff in Edinburgh found that Coxen sexually assaulted Miss M after a night of drinking when she was too intoxicated to consent, the Guardian reports.

She was awarded approximately £80,000 ($135,000 Cdn) in damages.

It is the first case of its kind in Scotland, and pushes the not proven verdict back into the spotlight.

'Easy way out'

Critics of the verdict, like Brindley, worry that jurors reluctant to convict in sexual assault cases see the verdict as an "easy way out."

After launching the campaign, Miss M told the Guardian that the not proven verdict is "very confusing for juries, especially in rape and sexual assault cases where they are also trying to understand about issues like consent and the effect of alcohol."

"When juries are already reluctant to convict in these cases, having the option of not proven contributes to wrongful acquittals," Miss M said.

Miss M, a former student at St. Andrews University in Fife, Scotland, was awarded approximately $135,000 after a civil court found she had been sexually assaulted after a night of drinking in 2013. (Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images)

Brindley said the not proven verdict leaves sexual assault survivors with mixed, unresolved feelings.

Supporters of the verdict argue that it gives the accused added protection.

Brindley said some survivors to feel that they are believed, but there wasn't enough evidence to convict — but others are left feeling the exact opposite.

"I think what's clear is that more and more rape survivors are coming out and saying: 'This verdict was devastating. We think it should go because we feel like it contributed to a lack of justice for us,'" Brindley said.  

Verdict 'on borrowed time': committee

According to the BBC, in 2013-14, the not proven verdict was used in 35 per cent of acquittals following trials for rape or attempted rape in a country that already has a low conviction rate for sexual assaults.

In 2016, Scotland's parliamentary justice committee reviewed the not proven verdict and while they did not scrap it, they ruled that it may not serve any purpose and is on "borrowed time."

Brindley is hopeful that the verdict, which many have attempted to get rid of in the past, is on its way out.

But in order for that to happen, she says there needs to be a change in a culture that tends to place the blame for sexual assault on the victim's clothing, intoxication or actions.

"Fundamentally, I think if we're going to improve justice for people that have been raped, we need to change societal attitudes to the issue," she said.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Richard Raycraft. 

now