Up to 40 rapists a year are being cautioned and allowed to walk free instead of facing jail terms, it emerged today.
Home Office documents revealed the number of people cautioned for rape has more than doubled in the past decade, while the conviction rate has fallen steeply.
Figures for 1994 show that 19 people were cautioned for rape, but by 2004 that number had risen to 40, according to The Times.
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidelines state that a cautioned individual must admit the offence and there must be a realistic prospect of conviction.
It adds that indictable offences, such as rape, can only result in a caution in "rare circumstances".
The Home Office said last night that a caution would be used only in "exceptional" circumstances as a method of dealing with a rape.
These are thought to include historic cases of rape where the culprit was elderly, but the victim wanted to know that he or she had formally admitted the crime.
Another case might include a very young offender who had been referred to a separate course of remedial action outside of the criminal justice system.
A Home Office spokesman said the Government was committed to bringing more rapists to justice and increasing the poor conviction rate.
The Home Office published a consultation paper on Saturday aimed at addressing the much-criticised low conviction rate.
Currently fewer than 6% of rape cases reported to the police result in a conviction.
Home Office figures show that although the number of rape convictions has remained stable, the number of rapes reported to the police is increasing year on year.
As a result the proportion resulting in a conviction has steadily declined from about one in three in 1977, to one in 20 cases in 2004.
A Home Office spokesman said last night: "The Government is committed to bringing rapists before the courts and increasing conviction rates across the country.
"This is why only yesterday we published a consultation paper setting out a range of proposals aimed at improving the outcome of rape cases through the courts.
"Rape is an appalling crime, it devastates the lives of victims and their families, however rape will always be a difficult offence to prosecute.
"The use of cautions in individual cases is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) who will only use such sanctions under the most exceptional circumstances."
Rape Crisis chairwoman Nicole Westmarland said: "We are shocked to find out that so many cautions have been given in rape cases.
"Rape is a crime that has a serious impact on its victims for years or even decades. It is completely unacceptable that rapists are able to continue living their day-to-day lives or even be free to rape again."
Nicola Harwin, chief executive of Women's Aid, a charity working to end domestic violence, told The Times that more information was needed on the figures.
She said: "I think it is worrying that cautioning for rape is something that is not discussed, explored or explained."
She added: "We need to be told the exact circumstances in which cautions are given, what the ground rules are and whether they are being applied properly."
In 2001 there were 190,000 incidents of serious sexual assault against women aged between 16 and 59 in England and Wales.
Those offences included an estimated 80,000 incidents of rape or attempted rape.
More than half (54%) of rapists were current or former partners or boyfriends of the victim and 17% were strangers.
In March the Government launched an advertising campaign targeted at young men that focused on the issue of consent in rape cases.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 created a much clearer definition of consent and a defendant in a rape case needs to show grounds to believe they had consent.Reuse content