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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Tortoise Take • Opinion

Rape crisis

Reports of the crime are on the rise in England and Wales, but prosecutions have plummeted

By Ella Hill

The criminal justice system in England and Wales is a disaster and it’s routinely failing victims of sexual violence.

This is a topic we are going to devote attention to in the coming months here at Tortoise – and will seek your help.

But it’s worth starting with the raw numbers. First, most incidents of rape go unreported.

There has, however, been a marked rise in reporting: reported rapes rose by 9 per cent in the last year – reaching 59,000. This is a four-fold rise on just ten years ago, and is part of a general rise in reporting rates for sexual violence.

Events, such as the celebrity sexual offences prosecution drive known as Operation Yewtree in 2012, encouraged more openness about these offences.

But this rise has not led to a rise in prosecutions. In fact, the total number of prosecutions has plummeted. In the past year, charges brought have dropped by 38 per cent – to just 1,758 cases. Since 2010, the number of prosecutions has halved.

Ten years ago, about a quarter of reported rapes led to prosecutions. Today, the number is 3 per cent.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) attributes the fall to the police: they say prosecutors are being asked to take on fewer cases. Only five per cent of reported rapes made it to the CPS in 2018-19. Year-on-year, referrals to the CPS fell by 23 per cent.

The CPS also blames delays on the huge increase in the volume of digital evidence from mobile phones and social media accounts. Police forces are ill-equipped to deal with the quantity of data, and there are few established rules for how police forces should treat and interpret this kind of evidence.

Certainly, the official statistics show rape is a crime where evidential problems are unusually significant. Compared with other types of offence, a great number of rape cases are abandoned due to evidential issues. Analysis of crimes recorded in the last year also shows unusually large number of rape cases were stuck in limbo.

In 2018-19, it took an average of 126 days for final decisions to be made on rape cases – whether to progress to prosecution or drop them. This is far higher than for other major crime types. The equivalent figure for other sexual offences is 77 days. For robbery, the figure is 24 days.

In rape cases leading to a charge, it took an average of 381 days – much longer than most other offences.

Even in cases where evidential problems caused the case to be dropped, it took an average of 226 days to get there. Again, this is strangely long.

Here at Tortoise, we particularly want to understand so-called “digital forensics”, the process by which mobile phone data is secured and scrutinised. Both the delays it causes and the falling charge rate it may be causing need unpicking.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition, a campaign group, believe that the fall in prosecutions is linked to a shift to a more risk averse approach to rape cases. Earlier this year, the group launched a judicial review challenge to the CPS.

Sarah Green, the co-director of the coalition, said: “We have strong evidence to show that CPS leaders have quietly changed their approach to decision-making in rape cases, switching from building cases based on their ‘merits’ back to second-guessing jury prejudices. This is extremely serious and is having a detrimental impact on women’s access to justice.”

Julie Bindel, a journalist and founder of Justice for Women was blunter:  “Without radical, urgent reform to the current system, rape will continue to become effectively decriminalised.”

The collapse in prosecutions is catastrophic.

WDYT? We think this is an issue worth pursuing much further. If you would like to participate, have a point of view or an experience to share, please contact Liz@tortoisemedia.com

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