Why are rape prosecutions at a 10-year low?

Figures raise serious questions about criminal justice system in England and Wales

If a person reports a rape to the police in England and Wales today they have less of a chance of seeing the perpetrator convicted in court than they did 10 years ago.

New figures from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) reveal rape charges, prosecutions and convictions have fallen to their lowest levels in more than a decade, raising serious questions about how the criminal justice system handles rape cases.

What do the new CPS figures show?

The number of rape cases being dealt with by the CPS has sharply declined in the last year. The service charged, prosecuted and convicted fewer cases despite more alleged rapes being recorded by police in the year to March 2019.

The latest data shows charged cases fell by 38% from 2,822 to 1,758; prosecutions dropped by 33% from 4,517 to 3,034; and convictions declined 27% from 2,635 to 1,925. However, alleged rapes recorded by the police increased by 9% from 54,045 to 58,657 in the same period.

In effect there were three convictions for every 100 rape cases recorded by the police in England and Wales last year.

Why is the CPS prosecuting fewer rape cases?

The CPS has pointed to the police as a leading cause of the growing gap between the number of cases being reported and those going to court. It says key reasons for this include police referring fewer cases, cases being more complex and lack of response from the police after requests for further information.

This, however, is only part of the picture. While police referrals are down, having fallen 27% since 2014, they pale in comparison with the decline in the number of cases the CPS decides to prosecute, which has dropped 51% in the same period.

This decline in prosecutions has also taken its toll on the number of convictions.

Why are rape cases becoming more complex?

The requirement for full disclosure is believed to be more common in rape cases, meaning rape complainants are now reportedly routinely asked to grant full access to their digital devices and personal records or risk having their cases dropped.

A phone can hold as many as 35,000 pages of evidence, according to the Big Brother Watch civil liberties group. This volume of evidence, which has to be reviewed by police, means cases take longer.

Why has there been a rise in reported rapes?

This increase is believed to be a result of more victims coming forward following high-profile coverage of historical abuse cases, such as that involving Jimmy Savile, and those around the #MeToo movement, as well as improvements to police crime recording.

Rape is still an under-reported crime. The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates that only about one in six victims of rape or assault by penetration report the incident to the police.

Has there been a policy change within the CPS?

The Guardian reported last year that prosecutors were instructed to “take the weak cases out of the system” to make the CPS’s conviction rate look better. However, Max Hill, the director of public prosecutions, has strongly denied any suggestion of a policy change at the CPS.

End Violence Against Women and the Centre for Women’s Justice have launched a legal challenge against the CPS’s treatment of rape cases, calling for a judicial review. The groups claim the CPS changed the way it handled cases in 2016 and point to the shift away from a previous “merits-based approach” to prosecuting rape.

What do the figures mean for people reporting rape?

An “end-to-end” review of how rape is treated by police and the CPS is under way to help understand why more cases are not being prosecuted.

Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, said: “Rape is often a serial offence so this policy, or failure, whichever it is, is likely to be putting the public at risk. This review has to be done in a fully independent and accountable way and victims and their organisations must be involved at every stage.”


Caelainn Barr Data projects editor

The GuardianTramp

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