Daily Telegraph, 2 September 2019
Convictions for rape have dropped to their lowest level for five years – and victims are at the mercy of an arbitrary ‘postcode lottery’, new figures suggest. They reveal that the chances of seeing an attacker in court, already worryingly low, depend in large part on where the victim happens to live.
According to an analysis by The Independent, police in Devon and Cornwall referred only 4.7 per cent of rape cases to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in 2017-18, compared with 20 per cent in South Wales and Norfolk – and then there are regional variations in how many suspects the CPS decides to charge. It’s a further sign of a criminal justice system in disarray, with police and prosecutors arguing over who is to blame for getting so few convictions.
Official figures published last week by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, showed a wearily familiar story: over a five-year period, many more victims reported a rape but the number of convictions has actually fallen. In the year 2017/18, police in England and Wales recorded 54,045 rapes, up by almost 13,000 on the previous year. Yet fewer suspects were found guilty – only 1,062 compared with 1,350 the previous year.
That’s a conviction rate of under two per cent, suggesting that that only one rape in every 50 reported to the police was punished by the criminal justice system. At the same time, fewer cases got to court; the overall prosecution rate fell in the same period from 6.8 per cent to 4.2 per cent. And we know from previously published figures that the situation has got even worse in the last year.
No one should be surprised by any of this. A toxic combination of delays in investigations, paranoia about false allegations and distrust of victims has brought us to this pass. A key factor is victim attrition – complainants dropping out because they can’t endure the ordeal of an inconclusive investigation that drags on for months if not years.
A review published last month by the London Victims’ Commissioner, Claire Waxman, looked at 501 rapes preported to the Metropolitan Police in April 2016 and found that only six per cent resulted in a trial. Victims withdrew in an alarming 58 per cent of cases, showing how much pressure they were under. The average length of time from reporting a rape to the conclusion òf a trial was 18 months.
With police resources stretched to breaking point, many complainants have little idea of what’s happened to their case. Given that most victims know the man who attacked them, and may have to face him daily at college or work, it’s hardly surprising if delays in the system are intolerable – and leave women vulnerable to intimidation.
This is bad enough for victims. But the failure to convict sexual predators has wider ramifications for society as a whole, as the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, has pointed out. Rapists are able to read headlines about collapsing convictions rates, just like anyone else, and they are far more likely to be encouraged than deterred. Some will go on to attack other victims, believing they are highly unlikely to be punished.
There’s no mystery about how this crisis – and it is a crisis – came about. Historically, both the police and the public have hugely over-estimated the frequency of false rape allegations. Many people wrongly assume that if a defendant is cleared, it means that the complainant was lying, rather than the prosecution failing to persuade jurors beyond reasonable doubt – a high threshold in a case where there might not be physical evidence.
Women’s organisations suspect that the collapse of a handful of widely-publicised rape trials has made prosecutors risk-averse, reluctant to take anything but the the most cast-iron cases to court. It’s increased pressure on the police, who are now making unprecedented intrusions into victims’ private data. The positions of victim and defendant have come close to being reversed, with many women who report a rape feeling as though it is they who are being treated as suspects.
The way to tackle this crisis is equally obvious, if the criminal justice system – and the politicians who set its priorities – really cared about getting justice for women. Police and prosecutors seem to have forgotten that their job is to identify and prosecute sexual predators, rather than going on fishing expeditions for ancient and irrelevant material that might appear to undermine the credibility of complainants.
A shortage of police officers inevitably affects rape cases. More detectives are needed to cut unacceptable delays in getting cases to court, and they should have specialist training to dispel the myths that currently influence attitudes towards women who report a rape. Most importantly of all, and to avoid victims withdrawing from the process, complainants should be entitled to independent advice and legal representation funded by the state.
These might seem like big asks, but the alternative is watching in silent fury as the penalty for rape gets ever closer to being abolished. A criminal justice system that leaves thousands of people vulnerable to serial rapists is failing on a spectacular scale.