Daily Telegraph, 12 September 2019
It is hard to think of a serious crime that has been reviewed so often, to so little effect. New figures show that the number of people prosecuted for rape in England and Wales has fallen to an all-time low, even though record numbers of cases are being reported to the police. Battle lines are being drawn between women’s organisations and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which has responded to the crisis by ordering yet another review.
There were only 1,925 convictions during the financial year 2018-19, down from 2,635 in the previous 12 months – a fall of 26.9 per cent. That compares with 2,581 in 2014-15, a time when far fewer victims went to the police and the low number of convictions was already a major cause for concern.
No one can deny that the figures are terrible, but it’s hard to see how the latest review will improve the situation. It will be carried out by a little-known body called Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI), and it isn’t clear how it will differ from the review of rape cases announced 18 months ago by the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. Or the major review of the handling of rape cases in London published four years ago by Dame Elish Angiolini. Or the review of the treatment of rape complaints in England and Wales by Baroness Vivien Stern, published in 2011.
If there’s one thing we aren’t short of in this country, it’s reviews of rape cases. But the stark fact is that despite all the time, effort and public money expended on these periodic exercises, the penalty for rape has come close to being abolished. Does anyone seriously believe that fewer than 2,000 people were victims of this horrific crime last year in two countries with a combined population of almost 60 million?
Official figures suggest otherwise. We know that 57,882 people reported a rape to the police in England and Wales last year, and we also know that’s a fraction of the real number of victims. It’s actually astonishing that so many people weren’t deterred from going to the police, given the frequency of reports about falling numbers of prosecutions and convictions. It could not be clearer that the vast majority of complainants are being led down, forced to endure lengthy, intrusive investigations with little hope of seeing their attackers convicted.
As is usually the case, the official response to the latest figures can be summed up in a single word: defensive. HMCPSI will review rape charging decisions made by the CPS, apparently in tandem with the national review announced last year, and there will be a mandatory training programme for specialist rape prosecutors.
None of this suggests a system that’s operating as it should yet the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Max Hill QC, says he has ‘every confidence in the work of our dedicated prosecutors’. We also appear to be going round in circles: there will be a project to understand rape myths and stereotypes, something Sir Keir Starmer QC identified as a problem when he was DPP in 2013.
We already know what the myths are, most obviously a mistaken public perception about the number of false rape claims, and the question is how the CPS intends to challenge them effectively. It certainly won’t do that by insisting that the police trawl through complainants’ phones and ancient school records, looking for a chance remark that might undermine their credibility.
The CPS and the police have blamed each other for the fall in prosecutions, citing cuts in police numbers and the demands made by the existence of large quantities of digital data. But dramatic falls in the number of rape charges in two successive years – there was a 37.7 per cent fall in the number of cases charged by the CPS last year – have led women’s organisation to argue that prosecutors have become markedly more risk-averse since 2016.
The CPS vigorously denies it has changed its approach but it’s about to be challenged by a group of women’s organisations. The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) threatened legal action against the DPP in June and says it will begin judicial review proceedings in the High Court next week. Its lawyer, Harriet Wistrich from the Centre for Women’s Justice, says she had gathered evidence suggesting that the ‘primary cause’ of the collapse in prosecutions is a ‘deliberate change’ in the approach taken by the CPS. She also claims that the CPS has tried to deter EVAW from bringing the case by suggesting the charity could become liable to pay significant legal costs if it loses.
In the meantime, the scandal of abysmally low prosecution and conviction rates continues. The CJS is doing its job so badly, failing to prosecute literally thousands of rape cases each year, that it’s effectively encouraging the ludicrous notion that women make false allegations at the drop of a hat. We desperately need a system that recognises the horrific scale of violence against women in this country – and has the guts to stand up for victims.