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How do we tackle the collapse in rape prosecutions?
The Home Affairs Committee says that the unacceptably low numbers of prosecutions for rape will continue without stronger reforms to the criminal justice system.

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"Precipitous fall in prosecutions"

In a report published yesterday (12 April 2022), the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee welcomed attempts to reform policing, the CPS and the court system to reverse the precipitous fall in prosecutions over the last five years. However, it warned that in many cases reforms are localised or still in development and will require significant funding to make an impact at a national level.

The figures

Police forces in England and Wales recently recorded the highest ever number of rapes within a 12-month period, yet only 1.3% of the recorded rape offences that have been assigned an outcome resulted in a charge or summons. The statistics on rape prosecutions are stark:

  • In the year to September 2021 there were 63,136 rape offences recorded – an all-time high
  • The number of completed rape prosecutions dropped from 5,190 in 2016/17 to 1,557 in 2020/21
  • The trauma of going through investigations and lengthy delays may have contributed to 63% of adult rape investigations being closed between July and September 2021 because the victim no longer wished to continue.

The Committee is critical of the Government’s Rape Review which sets out its strategy for reversing this drastic decline in rape charges and prosecutions. The Committee says the strategy, lacks ambition, protesting at the target to return to 2016 prosecution levels by 2024. The Committee argues that,  while this would reverse a steep decline, it would merely be going back to a level that was widely regarded as poor. The Committee also said that it had little confidence that this target will be achieved.

The impact of rape

The Committee is keen to publicise the human cost of the lack of prosecutions, highlighting that the impact of rape on victims and survivors is devastating. The Committee cites the Crime Survey for England and Wales in which 63% of female victims and 47% of male victims said they had suffered ‘mental or emotional problems’ as a result of the assault. Around one in ten said they had attempted suicide.

Strikingly, those victims and survivors who shared their experiences and views with the Committee also emphasised the negative impact of going through the criminal justice system itself. One person told the Committee that they wished they had never reported their rape; another, that if a friend told her they had been raped, she would not advise them to go to the police because of the stress and upset that can cause.

Another survivor told the Committee that the investigation had, ‘completely destroyed my life and changed me forever’. People who had experienced going through the criminal justice system following sexual violence told the Committee they felt like they were being investigated rather than the suspect.

Both complainants and defendants face long delays in the progression of their cases as well, which no doubt account for the fact that some complainants decide to protect themselves from further distress and withdraw from the system entirely. Committee says that the fact that the majority of cases are closed because the victim themselves does not support further action is a powerful indictment in itself.

Conclusions & Recommendations

The Committee argues that it is vital that victims and survivors of rape are provided with comprehensive services to support them during the investigation and prosecution process, as well as specialist counselling and therapy. It recommends a comprehensive mapping and monitoring exercise  to gauge the provision of specialist services across the country. 

The Committee proposes the creation of a a dedicated commissioner to act as an advocate for the interests of victims of sexual violence and abuse, or expanding the responsibilities of an existing commissioner, presumably the Victims’ Commissioner.

The Committee also recommends that every police force should have a specialist rape team (currently at least 40% forces do not). 

The Committee says that the Crown Prosecution Service needs to improve how it communicates with victims, saying that it should aim to develop better mechanisms for two-way engagement so that there is an opportunity to ask questions, rather than relying on letters.

Finally, the Committee calls for more accountability. While it welcomes the fact that key agencies involved in the investigation and prosecution of rape are developing action plans to improve performance, it notes that there is currently no single individual or body to ensure that the necessary transformation takes place. 

Thanks to Mika Baumeister for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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