CIVILIAN women are being recruited by Scotland's largest police force to help improve the currently poor conviction rates for rape.

A special team of civilian female "advocates" will form a central part of a new dedicated sex crimes investigations unit which is being launched by Strathclyde Police.

The women will be trained to offer counselling to victims and assist police with interviews.

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Police say one of the main stumbling blocks to prosecutions is gathering enough evidence because victims may be uncomfortable disclosing information to officers because of feelings of guilt or shame.

A similar advocacy service in the force's domestic abuse taskforce has been credited with driving up conviction rates for those offences.

The new unit will also strengthen the role played by charities such as Rape Crisis and Scottish Women's Aid, as well as doctors and clinical psychologists, in shaping police strategy to deal with sex crimes.

The Strathclyde squad will be a template for a new national sex crimes unit when the single national police force is launched next April.

Figures show that reports of rape and sexual assault in the Strathclyde Police area have risen this year. There were 270 incidents reported from April to September 2012, against 232 last year. The detection rate rose from 48.7% to 66.3%.

Reports of rape and attempted rape across Scotland increased 14% over 2010-11 compared with the previous year. The number of rapes reported rose to 997, the highest figure on record and 58% more than a decade previously.

Police say new laws which have widened the definition of rape and increased public confidence in the system have helped drive up reporting rates, but that convictions remain an issue.

Chief Superintendent George Nedley, who is heading up the new unit, said: "It's a notoriously difficult area to secure convictions - I don't think it's just Scotland, it's universal.

"Rape and any sexual assault is one of the most horrific crimes that anyone could fall victim to - Sometimes it's very, very difficult for victims to be completely open. I don't think we understand how [rape] impacts on the way people speak to us.

"We have worked hard to improve how we deal with people. We have made positive strides forward in how we deal with domestic abuse and particularly how we deal with victims.

"We are in the process of rolling out an advocacy service across the whole of Strathclyde; trained advisers who will work hand in hand with us and will look after the victim from the very outset, through the court process.

"The engagement with victims has been a much more positive experience. Many will have a motivation for getting involved.

"We want to build on that success and how we bring that into rape investigation. My vision of how this would work is that if we get a report of rape, the first thing we would do is call in an advocate.

"We've got highly skilled and trained officers but they are still police officers at the end of the day. As much as we do our best to look after the victim, I think it is an area we can get better in.

"A lot of the time if you think about a crime – if you have your car broken into, your car is the crime scene. In a rape, their body is the crime scene. To secure the best evidence, some of the methods we have to use are very intrusive and that can be hugely traumatic - You can completely understand how some victims would be reluctant to go through that trauma."

The unit, based at Strathclyde Police's Glasgow headquarters, will also look at ways to drive up prosecutions for rape affecting men, who police say can be even more reluctant to report incidents.

Last year Lord Carloway published a review of the criminal justice system which recommended scrapping the unique Scottish requirement of corroboration, which means the evidence must be backed up by two witnesses. It has been cited as a possible reason for Scotland's low conviction rate for rape.

Nedley said: "The big debate now is about corroboration and whether there should there be exemptions for crimes of a sexual nature. There are some areas of corroboration that have hamstrung us.

"What we do in domestic abuse, we don't just look at one incident, we look historically, and predominantly what we find is that it is a pattern of behaviour that can stem back 20 years.

"There are mechanics in law where we can use separate instances as corroboration, but there have been some legal decisions that look at time limiting that, and I think the removal of those kinds of barriers within law would be very helpful for us."