The Crown Prosecution Service is investigating whether thousands of suspected rape cases have been wrongly discontinued over the last two years because police forces or its own lawyers are misinterpreting official guidelines.
Since 2011 the number of rape cases referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service for charging decisions has fallen by a third – despite a 3 per cent rise in reported rapes over the period. The number of people charged with rape by the CPS over that period has fallen by 14 per cent.
Now an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for The Independent has found disturbing links between the fall in referrals and changes to the police approach to rape cases following updated CPS guidance in 2011. It has also found evidence that police may be dropping cases on the basis of informal guidance from CPS lawyers – without files being formally examined by prosecutors.
The amended CPS guidance puts more emphasis on police forces identifying and stopping cases where the threshold for charging is not met before they get to the CPS. Critics say that police may be dismissing cases that could be successfully prosecuted. The shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, described the Bureau’s finding as profoundly concerning and suggested it may be linked to cutbacks in police and CPS resources.
Last night the CPS confirmed it would investigate its guidelines as part of a review into the falling referral rates.
“We are exploring the reasons for the drop in rape referrals with the police,” the CPS said. “This work will include looking at the appropriate interpretation and application of the Director’s guidance and the evidential standard of the case files submitted to the CPS.”
A document obtained by the Bureau shows that on average police forces across England and Wales sent 21 per cent fewer cases to the CPS for charging in the financial year 2012-13 than the year before. Since 2010-11 referrals of rape cases to the CPS have fallen from 8,130 to 5,404. But there was a significant variation across the 42 forces covered by the data.
Half of all forces – 22 in total – reduced their referrals by more than a fifth. Six forces’ referrals dropped by 40 per cent or more.
The data also shows that in almost three-quarters of cases where the number of rape referrals by police forces has dropped, the number of charges made by the CPS has also dropped. When referrals have gone up, the number of charges has risen in all cases.
The Bureau contacted all the forces that registered a drop of more than the average 21 per cent to find out how they could explain the fall.
Eleven said changes in the way they work with the CPS locally and assess cases had contributed to the decline. The remaining 10 forces said they had not changed their approach or were unwilling to respond.
A spokeswoman for Cumbria police, where referrals dropped by 54 per cent last year, said advice from prosecutors had led to an overhaul of its procedures.
“Through on-going conversations with CPS colleagues the Constabulary identified it was submitting some case files that did not meet the relevant Code for Crown Prosecutors evidential test,” she said.
Cumbria said it had put new procedures in place “requiring decisions on prosecutions to be made within the Constabulary, with referrals to the CPS being made only for those cases where evidential and public-interest-test stages of the code were met and a prosecution was recommended”.
The spokeswoman added: “The result was therefore that referrals to [the] CPS declined.”
Detective Chief Inspector Steve Chapman of Durham Police, which sent 39 per cent fewer rape cases to the CPS in the last financial year, told the Bureau his force had agreed with the CPS that officers would be “more robust when quality-assuring cases in the first instance, before deciding whether they should be referred to the CPS for a charging decision.” He added: “This reduces delays, which is good news for victims and also relieves the CPS of an unnecessary burden.”
The country’s largest force, the Metropolitan Police Service, referred nearly 300 fewer cases – a drop of 25 per cent – to the CPS in 2012-13 than it did in 2011-12.
A senior Met officer initially told the Bureau the force’s referrals had dropped as a result of a policy change put in place in response to the CPS Director’s 2011 guidance on charging.
This guidance emphasised the police’s role in stopping all cases that do not meet evidence and public-interest-test standards before referring to the CPS for charging.
The statement was later retracted by the force after discussions with the CPS.
A spokeswoman for the Association of Chief Police Officers suggested that the way in which forces interpreted the CPS guidance was “likely” to be a factor in the fall. The CPS insisted that any changes in the 2011 code had been one of language rather than substance.
“The evidential standard required for a prosecution, in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors, has not changed, nor did the Director’s Guidance on Charging impose new requirements on cases being referred for consideration,” it said.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt, ACPO’s National Policing Lead on Adult Sex Offences said the figures were a worry but that work was underway to address the problem.
“The fall in the number of rape or domestic abuse cases that police are reporting to the Crown Prosecution Service is a concern,” he said. “Chief officers, CPS and the Home Office have commissioned research in seven forces so that we can understand why this fall in referrals has taken place and find the best way of tackling any issues that are identified. The public should be in no doubt of the police's commitment to bringing offenders of sex crimes to justice and protecting victims.”