Why are rape prosecutions falling?


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Recorded rape offences have risen by 43% in England and Wales – but the proportion making it to court has more than halved since 2016.

The police are referring fewer cases to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which, in turn, is deciding that fewer of those that are referred should go to trial.

But the HM Crown Prosecution Inspectorate (HMCPSI) has found no evidence the CPS is prosecuting only “easy cases where a conviction was more likely”.

An increase in the amount of evidence involved, from phones and social media, has made these cases more difficult for police, prosecutors and, potentially, victims.

Victims’ commissioner Baroness Helen Newlove, meanwhile, has said the fact police and prosecutors now ask complainants in rape cases to agree to hand their phones over or face the prospect of prosecutions being dropped is “unlikely to do anything to help reverse the fall in prosecutions for rape and sexual violence”.

More complainants are withdrawing their allegations before the police can refer their cases to the CPS, it says.

Katie Russell, of charity Rape Crisis, said resourcing was also an issue, with both the police and prosecutors needing more funding to pursue these complex cases.

Rising reports

Reports of rape have tripled in the past decade.

Part of this has been linked to the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Yewtree investigation, set up following revelations about paedophile Jimmy Savile.

There was also an increase in reports after the 2011 introduction of a right for complainants to have the handling of their cases reviewed.

And as reports rose, the proportion of prosecutions leading to a successful conviction fell slightly.

Dropped cases

After this fall in the conviction rate, the CPS became more reluctant to allow cases to proceed without strong evidence, according to Ian Kelcey, who co-chairs the Law Society criminal law committee.

In November, it was revealed the CPS had previously had a secret conviction rate target, introduced in 2016 – that 60% of rape cases should end in a prosecution.

And it was suggested this may have caused prosecutors to drop weaker or more challenging cases.

The CPS itself says it has “worked hard in recent years to improve how we deal with sexual offences” and will “always seek to prosecute where there is sufficient evidence to do so”.

‘Drift’

There was a particularly significant fall in rape cases making it to court between 2016 and 2017, from 8.1% to 3.3% in a single year.

This coincided with amendments to the Policing and Crime Act for England and Wales, which favoured releasing people without bail when there was not enough evidence to arrest or charge.

Previously, people suspected of crimes, including rape, might have been released on bail, with various conditions attached, and their case would have been regularly reviewed.

And, according to Mr Kelcey, this change has led to cases being left to drift.

This piece was originally published in April 2019, but has been updated to include the latest statistics.

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