Was Owen Oyston wrongly convicted of rape?

Edited selections from HANSARD, the official transcript of the British House of Commons (part of the Houses of Parliament)

5 Mar 1998 : Column 1275

Owen Oyston

8.52 pm

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this a particularly difficult issue to raise. Members of Parliament do not usually stand up in the Chamber and allow themselves to be identified with those who would seek to defend a man successfully prosecuted for the offence of rape. What I say here this evening could easily be misrepresented.

I take that risk because I believe that someone must speak up on this case. Arising out of the Oyston trial, I see the danger of future miscarriages of justice, where cases are badly investigated, men are charged with rape and juries convict on the basis of uncorroborated evidence in closely contested cases. I am talking about convictions in the complete absence of medical or scientific support.

This debate is about the case of the rape of a 16-year old girl by a 57-year-old man. I am arguing that the case raises issues of public policy and natural justice.

This was one of a series of six such allegations made against this man. A magistrate found no case to answer in three of the cases. A Crown court acquitted him in two. The allegations, which a jury upheld, were that the man indecently assaulted a young woman, whom I will call J, in the back of a car in the presence of two other passengers, one of whom was her friend. Twenty minutes later, J alleged, he raped her in his own bed in his own home. Both allegations were challenged by J's friend Lysa Rubotham, who was in the car and in the bedroom.

Mr. Oyston asked to meet me in the House of Commons and told me that he was the subject of a conspiracy--his words. He was being prosecuted for rape. I could not comment on the issue of conspiracy--I have no knowledge of those matters. He told me that he had been very stupid, an admission he was subsequently to make in the course of his trial. He also told me that he had been having sexual relationships with young women. He seemed to me to be admitting that he had taken advantage of his position as a media tycoon.

The question is whether a charge of rape should have been brought against Owen Oyston. Oyston admits that he took advantage of young women. The House will deplore such conduct, and I find it unspeakable--but such is life. We have never legislated to make such relationships illegal, although some hon. Members may want to. However much we might condemn such behaviour, it is not a criminal offence, whereas rape is a particularly serious and nasty offence.

Did a change in the law on rape, five days before Oyston was charged, prejudice his trial? I have often asked why that change was introduced only five days before he was charged and whether there was a connection. A rule that had obliged judges to warn juries about the dangers of convicting on the uncorroborated word of one complainant in a rape case had been abolished. In 1993, the then Home Secretary said that it had to go. He said that it was outdated and demeaning to women, particularly in rape cases. I believe that that rule change was critical to the Oyston trial.

In the case against Oyston, the prosecution brought an uncorroborated allegation of rape. However, the defence produced an eyewitness, Lysa Rubotham, J's friend--the other woman in the car whom the Crown acknowledged to have been present. I have interviewed this woman. During an interview at my home four weeks ago, she told me that she believed that an injustice has been done. She insisted that no assault had taken place in the car in which she was travelling, and that no rape had taken place in the house that the two girls had visited.

The case hinged entirely on the credibility of the two women witnesses. Both the Crown and the defence agreed that the two women had been present in the defendant's home on the only occasion when an offence could have been committed. Lysa Rubotham believes that J lied to the court. She told me that she would believe for the rest of her life that an injustice has been done. In my home, she openly wept over her failure to be believed in the court.

No other material evidence was available to the defence or the jury, as J could not say in what precise part of any year, season or month any offence had been committed. Most remarkably, she allowed two whole years to pass before she revealed to anyone that the rape had taken place.

The trial judge told the jury that one of the two witnesses must have lied to them. He also told them that their resolution of the conflict of evidence was central to the question of guilt.

There is one aspect of the preparation of the case against Owen Oyston that I find particularly disturbing. Why was the evidence of the appalling and chronic abuse of drugs not adequately researched or considered by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Crown court, or even the Court of Appeal? At one trial, J was formally given immunity from prosecution for past drug abuse. However, the police did not carry out a full inquiry into her heavy use of amphetamines, Ecstasy and cannabis. This was a woman whose memory of events, late one night four years earlier, would be so vital to the jury at the trial of Owen Oyston.

The question is whether courts should be allowed to rely in rape trials wholly on the evidence of those who have repeatedly used drugs.

As I have said, raising a case of this nature is very difficult for a Member of Parliament, but I feel very, very strongly that something is wrong, and that the truth has got to come out. A barrister recently said to me that the Oyston trial had implications for the whole of the law on rape. Something, somewhere, is wrong. The law is being brought into disrepute. I can only foresee great injustice being done in the future, unless we again review the law.

Before his trial, Owen Oyston was told by lawyers that, if he was prepared to say that he had consensual sex with J, a conviction for rape would be very unlikely, because of the operation of the law on consent. However, Oyston refused to adopt what he claimed was a dishonest defence. Both Oyston and Lysa Rubotham were adamant that no sex, consensual or otherwise, had ever taken place between Oyston and J.

Although I have not met Oyston for three years and have not been able to discuss the case with him, he has let it be known from prison that he will not admit his guilt, even to placate the parole board. I wish to leave the House with some very simple facts to consider. First, Oyston admits that he had sexual relations with young women. Secondly, he has consistently denied rape, even though that may have adverse implications for parole. Thirdly, no scientific evidence for rape exists. Fourthly, no medical evidence exists. Fifthly, there is no firm date for the offence. Sixthly, the police lost the original interview notes. Seventhly, the incident was not reported until two years after it took place. Eighthly, the accused refused to admit to any sexual activity even though that could have enhanced his prospects of acquittal or brought a lighter sentence. Ninthly, the friend of the victim, Lysa Rubotham, who was present throughout, insists that no rape took place. Tenthly, the victim admitted to being a regular user of hallucinatory drugs. Something is wrong, and I want something done about it.

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