The Crown Prosecution Service releases figures showing convictions for rape in England and Wales dropped -37.7% in 2018-19 compared to the previous year, making the conviction rate for rape the lowest since records began.
The newly published figures have sparked outrage and debate as campaigners call for answers and an overhaul to the way the justice system handles rape and sexual assault cases in England and Wales.
The decline comes despite an exponential increase in the number of rapes reported to the police, which reached just under 54,000 in 2017-18. 2018-19 figures for reported rapes have yet to be released. Trafford Rape Crisis was invited to comment on the figures on BBC Breakfast as part of its coverage of the statement.
The context of the figures
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) blames the police for referring fewer cases forward, but the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) notes that since 2014, the CPS decisions to prosecute have fallen at almost double the rate that police referrals have.
Campaigners believe a change in approach for the CPS in a bid to improve its conviction rate – the % of cases it takes forward that result in a conviction, rather than the total number of convictions – is to blame. This follows a Guardian report in 2018 which exposed the fact that prosecutors were being urged to “drop weak cases” in a bid to improve their conviction rates.
One prosecutor who attended a course delivered by two senior representatives from the CPS claimed staff were told: “If we took 350 weak cases out of the system, our conviction rate goes up to 61%.”
The CPS denies the allegations. However, the Centre for Women’s Justice has now amassed enough evidence to commence judicial review proceedings against the Crown Prosecution Service, supported by the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
Breaking down the figures: how likely is a perpetrator or rape to be convicted?
The annual Violence Against Women and Girls report shows the number of reports of rape now ending in conviction is just 3%.
However, by the governments’ own estimate, just 15-20% of rapes are ever reported to the police. In light of these figures, this means that a victim of rape or sexual assault has a 0.7% chance of seeing their perpetrator convicted.
The EVAW Coalition released this as part of their statement:
“Every day survivors of rape are being failed by a criminal justice system which appears to have effectively decriminalised rape. We argue that CPS leaders have quietly changed their approach to decision-making in rape cases, switching from building cases based on their ‘merits’ back to second-guessing jury prejudices.
“It is vital that the CPS, a state institution so central to women’s access to justice, is held to account for any internal policy change that has adversely impacted the likelihood of rape cases reaching court.
How is the system failing victims?
Campaigners point to the failure of the Prosecution Service to support, protect and advocate for victims at every level in the system.
The nature of rape and sexual violence makes for highly complex crimes. 90% of victims know their perpetrator before the offense was committed and typically there are no witnesses to the crime.
Due to the traumatic nature of sexual violence and rape, many victims don’t – or can’t – report the incident at the time. It may take victims a while to process or understand what has happened to them; as the numbers show, many won’t report at all, for a variety of reasons.
In addition, attending a Sexual Assault Referral Centre will see the victim needing to undergo deeply intrusive examinations in order for forensic evidence to be collected. Given the nature of what they’ve experienced, this will naturally deter victims from attending a centre, resulting in a lack of forensic evidence.
In a bid to obtain supporting evidence, victims are now being asked to hand over their phones and subjected to ‘digital strip searches’, a further violation of their privacy that may see evidence gathered being used against them by the defense in court, in an act of victim-blaming. Victims who refuse to undergo this step will often be told their case can’t be taken forward.
Investigations continue to focus on a woman’s character, honesty and sexual history instead of the actions and behavior of the accused.
Misconceptions and myths around the issue of consent also continue to perpetuate our society, despite increased awareness in light of the #MeToo movement. This includes the myth that false claims of rape are common, and a lack of understanding of what constitutes rape or consent. These are beliefs brought into the courtroom by ill-informed juries who are subsequently more likely to make excuses for young adult males as a result.
What needs to be done?
While the Home Office has launched a review into the process of rape prosecution, it has yet to be completed – and the situation is worsening.
The CPS must be held accountable for these figures and failings. We support the legal challenge upheld by the CWJ and EVAW, which will force an investigation into the reasons behind this dramatic fall in convictions.
A complete review of the end-to-end process faced by victims needs to address questions including whether trial by jury is appropriate for these types of crimes – a topic investigated by Dr Nina Burrows for the BBC – or if specialist additional education of jurors can help address unconscious bias and improve understanding of the nature of these crimes.
First-response officers need better training in supporting victims in the aftermath of an assault and more services and support for victims needs to be made available, including Independent Sexual Violence Advocates (ISVAs). The system needs to reform its approach to evidence gathering, particularly around digital evidence.
Women already face a traumatic ordeal when making the decision to report. This coverage by Cosmopolitan, which shares stories of survivors who underwent the process, show just how varied and difficult the process is. This is not good enough: and something needs to change, now.