As new Crown Prosecution Service figures reveal the rape conviction and prosecution rate has fallen to a record low, Joan Smith urges action
It’s time to be brutally frank: if you are raped in Britain today, you will almost certainly never see justice. Even if you do all the right things, such as going to the police and cooperating with their investigation, the chances are your attacker won’t ever be charged. He’s even more unlikely to be convicted – but he will be free to attack other women.
That’s what lawyers and women’s organisations mean when they say rape has been decriminalised in this country. It’s supported by the latest figures, which could hardly be more damning, showing that the number of individuals prosecuted and convicted for rape has fallen to the lowest level since records began. Police recorded 55,130 rapes in England and Wales in 2019-20, but there were only 2,102 prosecutions – and just 1,439 convictions, a mere 1.4 per cent.
Prosecutions and convictions have more than halved in three years. The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird, has pointed out that at least 1,000 fewer rapists are being prosecuted than two years ago, a situation she describes as ‘utterly shameful’.
It certainly isn’t justice, but it also represents a monumental failure of public protection. Thousands of women summoned up the courage to go to the police in England and Wales last year – only to see no one charged.
But it also means that perhaps 50,000 men got away with rape, and there’s nothing to stop them doing it again. According to the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), victims now have a one in 70 chance of seeing charges brought in their case – and those are odds that many serial sex offenders are going to like.
You might pass one of them on the street today, without ever knowing the danger he poses to women; yourself, your sister, mother, grandmother, wife, girlfriend, best friend. The vast majority of sex offenders don’t have a record and aren’t on the sex offenders’ register; few of them have even been interviewed, let alone charged, and they don’t look any different from anyone else. That’s why it’s so vital that their crimes are recognised, investigated and punished, but that’s happening only in a tiny minority of cases.
Imagine if something similar were happening in murder cases – that convictions were in free fall, while police and prosecutors kept telling us just how difficult it is to get murderers into court. Rape victims who go to the police have signalled their willingness to cooperate with a prosecution, but most of them won’t ever see one. And those that do may find themselves face-to-face with their alleged attacker because courts are failing to provide them with the protections they are legally entitled to, according to new research this week.
You might think that ministers, police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) would be hanging their heads in shame. Not a bit of it.
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill QC, struck a bullish note when he was interviewed about the latest figures on the Today programme, saying they represent what was happening some time ago and “current trends” are moving in the right direction. Crucially, he insisted that “serious mistakes” were made three or four years ago, resulting in cases going to court “which shouldn’t have…and so we have had to eradicate that as well”.
Critics of the CPS argue that what he’s talking about – a panicked reaction to the collapse of some high-profile rape cases – is how we got into this mess in the first place. The CPS and senior police officers found themselves on the back foot, failing to distinguish between a decision to drop a prosecution, which might be for evidential reasons, and an acquittal.
Indeed EVAW claims there was a “covert” policy change in 2016-17, when prosecutors were encouraged to take “weaker” cases out of the system in order to improve the rape conviction rate. It’s been denied by the CPS, but lawyers for EVAW won a landmark appeal this week, overturning a High Court decision to refuse a judicial review into the way prosecutors make charging decisions in rape cases. Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “This historic decision by the Court of Appeal will allow a proper examination of the CPS approach. They have accepted it is arguable that the CPS did change their policy, failed to consult and their actions ultimately led to a fall in rape prosecutions which discriminates against women who are the majority of victims. This may amount to systemic illegality.”
A statement from the National Chief Police Chief’s Council, responding to the new figures, says they are hearing from officers on the ground that “it is becoming harder to achieve the standard of evidence required to charge a suspect and get a case into court”.
Meanwhile the wrong-headed notion that thousands of men are at risk of false accusations has been allowed to gain ground (while it’s undoubtedly awful for the men involved, the number to which this happens is minute). It has encouraged police and prosecutors to make ever more intrusive demands on victims – a process described as a “digital strip search”. Only last month the Information Commissioner’s Office criticised the way police use data from mobile phones, warning that “intrusion into individuals’ privacy presents a risk of undermining confidence in the criminal justice system” and banned them.
This is exactly what has happened in rape cases. The reluctance of the CPS to recognise it, and Hill’s apparent complacency about the overall trend, doesn’t suggest that things will change in the near future.
Ministers, police and the CPS need to recognise their part in bringing about this catastrophic situation: the problem with rape in this country isn’t women making unreliable claims. It’s an unforgivable failure by the criminal justice system to recognise the sheer number of serial sex offenders out there – and make it too risky for them to carry on.
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News – 50,000 men have got away with rape in Britain – and there’s nothing to stop them attacking again