What is causing the decline in rape cases going to court?

In the last five years, a concerning trend has developed. There is now a huge disparity between the number of rape offences reported to the police, and the number of prosecutions made.

HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) published its Rape Inspection report in 2019. The results were shocking. It outlined that out of 58,657 rape allegations, only 1,925 ended up with a prosecution. This is a 3% conviction rate. Comparatively, since 2016 there has been a 52% drop in the number of cases prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

HM Chief Inspector Kevin McGinty stated that these statistics: “[Indicate] there is a serious problem”. And he is right. This clearly reflects a wider, multifaceted systemic problem within the criminal justice system.

When fewer than 4% of women who report a rape will see it go to trial, it is vital to ask: What is preventing justice from being served to survivors?

The answer is disturbing at best and indicates potential systemic corruption and worrying cover ups.

A lack of transparency

This month it was discovered that the CPS had conducted a secret internal review which revealed its failure to prosecute rape cases. It chose not to show its findings to HMCPSI. At the time HMCPSI was conducting an internal review of CPS cases and the respective decline in rape prosecution rates.

The Guardian has revealed unsettling statistics from this CPS internal review. The report shows that prosecutors had made “disproportionate requests” in 56% of cases. In 65% of cases sent to the CPS for early investigative advice (EIA) there had also been “disproportionate requests” for information.

The information contained highly irrelevant material. This included school reports dating back to the 70s and requests for ‘all phone downloads’. In some cases it was shown that when requests for information were made, police were unable to deliver, effectively bringing an end to the case.

Intrusive measures violate survivors

These requests for information were made possible through a new police policy of national consent forms. This was rolled out in April 2019 and asks survivors’ permission to allow detectives to seize their mobile phones. This has been deemed a ‘digital strip search,’ and involves the collection of images, text messages and call data.

Up to 7 years of data can be collected in relation to a rape allegation made by the complainant.

It has also been claimed by some women’s organisations that phone seizures even occur when the assault was committed by a stranger.

Speaking to 5 News, Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said the new policy ensures the process is as ‘fair and reliable as possible’. He added that the police would only look for information that is ‘relevant’ to the case.

However, the controversial policy has been slammed for treating complainants as suspects. It has been said that it violates their personal privacy. This in turn has been attributed to the decrease in the number of survivors pursuing cases.

This is not surprising, considering that a large number of cases have been dismissed as a result of using this personal data. 5 News found that cases of domestic and sexual abuse were dropped after messages from the survivor to the abuser were viewed. These messages were deemed ‘too loving’ and were said to undermine the case.

These case dismissals completely misunderstand the nature of physically and sexually abusive relationships. Ultimately, this means that rapists are allowed to walk free, and further endanger the lives of survivors and other men and women.

Further to this, the Information Watchdog found that in 2019 there had been at least 5 alleged breaches of information. Here the complainants personal information had been divulged to the defendant by police.

Speaking to the Law Society Gazette, Shadow Attorney General Baroness Chakrabarti expressed the need for rape victims to be given the same legal protection as suspects. She noted that introducing an act similar to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), would prevent complainants from being violated when it comes to evidence gathering.

An investigation into the impact that phone seizures has had on survivors is currently being conducted. Leading the investigation is Claire Waxman, the Victims’ Commissioner for London.

Speaking to the Guardian, she said: “I’m hoping to show how disproportionate requests for personal material is fuelling high level of victim withdrawals from cases and also the increase in police ‘no further action’ and the decline in CPS charging decisions.”

In her London Rape Review, published in 2019, it was found that 58% of alleged victims had decided to drop the cases due to the invasive process. This means that these cases did not even make it to court.

Hushed up policy changes

Accompanying these revelations, the CPS is currently facing high court action by (EVAW) coalition. This concerns the hushed up policy changes which introduced secret targets for conviction rates.

The policy outlined that prosecutors should have ‘levels of ambition’ aiming for a 60% conviction rate for rape cases. CPS at first denied the introduction of this policy, but later admitted to the Law Gazette that changes between 2016 and 2018 had taken place. It suggested that these changes may have acted as a ‘perverse incentive’ for prosecutors to drop more complicated rape cases.

The CPS said that it stopped using these targets in April 2018. It has also said that the targets could not be considered a policy change, but rather a ‘benchmarking tool’.

Final thoughts

The Home Office may have ‘refreshed’ its cross-government violence against women and girls strategy, but there is clearly still much more that needs to be done.

The Met Office has said it plans to improve conviction rates by convicting rapists without victim testimony. But this does not tackle the deeper, more intrinsic problems.

Furthermore, blame for low conviction rates cannot be put solely on lack of resources and staff shortages. It is evident that a change in mentality is required, if any real and effective progress is to be made.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn