Radical change needed in handling of rape cases, says England and Wales police lead

Exclusive: NPCC lead for rape says specialist capability was damaged during austerity years

Crack teams of specialist police officers are needed to bring rapists to justice and prevent a wholesale collapse of public confidence in the criminal justice system, according to the police lead for rape in England and Wales.

Rape prosecutions have fallen to a record low, following a historic collapse in the number of police referrals, charges and convictions in rape cases, which critics argue amounts to the “decriminalisation” of rape. The situation is so dire that a radical reassessment of how sexual assault crimes are dealt with is needed, according to Sarah Crew.

“We need to build a specialist capability. Increasingly, with the numbers of cases that are being reported, I think the case for groups of specialists within police forces has become stronger,” said Crew, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for rape in England and Wales.

Crew joined the police in 1994 and has spent her whole career at Avon and Somerset police, where she is now deputy chief constable. She has led police strategy on rape since February 2019, replacing Martin Hewitt who became chair of the NPCC.

She said her biggest concern was a knock-on effect on public confidence in the criminal justice system. “I consider the impact on individual victims, and that they don’t see justice done,” she said. “But when … it plays out in the public domain, I do worry about public confidence – not just in policing, but in the whole criminal justice system. And if you can’t do it for rape, where the effect is life-changing, you could [ask]: what is the criminal justice system for?”

In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, Crew admitted the criminal justice system was failing rape victims and huge progress and expertise in prosecuting sexual violence was lost when specialist teams investigating rape were disbanded during years of austerity.


“It’s quite often the case that even when people aren’t blaming the police, we take it, we take it on, we recognise it, and we take that personally, we feel it’s a failure,” she said. “But we’re not complacent. We haven’t given up. We are trying really, really hard.” She added that there was “real self-reflection” about where police needed to improve or had “gone backwards”.

Reports of rape to the police have almost doubled since 2015, but there are fewer prosecutions and convictions than during any other period on record. The number of cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) by police has dropped by 40% in the last three years, while prosecutions and convictions have more than halved.

Tensions between the police and CPS have emerged in the past year, with the CPS referencing the drop in police referrals while senior police figures say officers are finding it harder to bring charges.

Addressing accusations of failures at a police level, Crew said the disbandment of specialist teams had led to a workforce lacking in the skills and confidence required to build difficult rape cases and challenge CPS decisions. “I think we’ve got a very inexperienced workforce, who do lots of different things and there are some more complexities now with a lot of digital and third party material. I think while over time they might have the skills, they probably lack that confidence.”

A major government review of rape in the criminal justice system was due to report before Christmas, but has been delayed until after a ruling is handed down from a landmark legal challenge against the CPS heard at the end of January. The case, brought by the Centre for Women’s Justice on behalf of the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition, argues the CPS has become more “risk-averse”.

In 2018, the Guardian revealed that prosecutors in England and Wales had been advised in training seminars to put a “touch on the tiller” and take a proportion of “weak cases out of the system” to boost the conviction rate. The highest conviction rate on record for rape was recorded in 2020.

Cases typically face two common challenges: vast amounts of digital evidence and stalled cases being passed between agencies. Victims’ groups have complained of “digital strip searches” being carried out on complainants, which can leave investigating officers sifting through a complete download of a complainant’s phone, which on average produces 35,000 pages of information, much of it irrelevant.

Cases also come to a halt when prosecutors send them back to police for further investigation. A secret internal review carried out by the CPS last year found its prosecutors were overreaching and in the majority of cases by making “disproportionate” and “unnecessary” requests for additional information from police officers.

When the CPS does not hear back from police within three months, it classes cases as “administratively finalised”. Almost a quarter of all cases sent to prosecutors were administratively finalised in the year to July 2020. It is unclear from current statistics whether any of those cases are ever reopened.

Crew said she wanted to “give back hope” to officers to enable them to build stronger cases and engage with prosecutors with more confidence around requests for extra material.

She said renewing public confidence was key to improving results. “I want people to feel that if they come forward, they’re going to be listened to, they’re going to be believed, they’re going to feel respect, and they’re going to have the chance of having their day in court and a good chance of seeing justice done.”


Caelainn Barr and Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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