New guidance planned over dropped rape claims

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The Independent Online

Prosecutors are to be given new guidance on when to pursue women who withdraw rape claims, it was announced today.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said recent court rulings had exposed failings in the system that had eroded public trust.

A framework will now be drawn up in a bid to ensure a different approach is taken in cases such as abuse victims being scared into dropping rape claims.

Mr Starmer's personal approval will in future be required.

In one recent case, a 28-year-old mother was freed by the Court of Appeal from an eight-month jail term for "falsely retracting" rape allegations against her husband.

After the case Lord Judge said there should have been a "broad measure of compassion" for a woman who had been "victimised".

"This is an extreme case and we hope that it will be very exceptional for cases of this kind to be prosecuted to conviction in the Crown Court," he said.

Writing in the Guardian, Mr Starmer said: "There have been cases recently where ... I do not consider justice was done or was seen to be done.

"Apologies and legal explanations offer scant comfort to a victim and the public are rightly reluctant to place their trust in public authorities unwilling to accept their failings.

"We need to work on our approach in retraction cases. From now on, my approval for charging will be needed in these cases and we will monitor them closely.

"If the victim has decided to withdraw a rape allegation, we must explore the issues behind that, particularly if the victim is under pressure or frightened."

He said that at present around 110 retraction cases were considered for prosecution each year - 61 resulting in successful prosecutions last year and seven unsuccessful.

That compared with around 4,000 rape prosecutions brought annually, he said.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said the guidelines - on which a consultation will begin next month - would form part of a wider shake-up of the handling of rape allegations.

Other measures will include strengthened efforts to prevent "myths and stereotypes" affecting decisions and a requirement for CPS offices to monitor their handling of cases involving violence against women in a bid to ensure consistency across the country.

But Mr Starmer cautioned that public expectations of prosecutors' ability to pursue rape claims were sometimes "unrealistic" given the challenges.

"While we must be robust in prosecuting those who seek to pervert the course of justice, cases where someone has reported a rape but then retracts the allegation must be treated very carefully and we must explore the issues behind the retraction, particularly if the victim is under pressure or frightened," he said in a statement.

"We are keen to know the views of all parties, including charities and special interest groups with expertise in this area. This will ensure our new guidance deals properly and sensitively with these often complex situations."

Commenting on the wider changes, he said: "Prosecuting rape is very challenging. Public expectations are high and sometimes unrealistic.

"By their very nature, many cases turn on the word of one individual against another. Rape often occurs in private with the victim the only witness.

"Unless the defendant pleads guilty, usually the victim has to give evidence in court to establish the basis for a prosecution and the prosecution case must always be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

"As prosecutors we need to reinforce the so-called 'merits-based' approach to rape cases. Cases should be judged entirely on the merits of the evidence: myths and stereotypes have no place in a criminal justice system underpinned by basic human rights.

"These measures are the first steps in a long-term drive to improve the quality of rape prosecutions. They complement the Core Quality Standards, announced earlier this year, and will further hold the CPS to the high standard that the public rightly expect."