Legal challenge launched against CPS over plummeting rape prosecutions

Crown lawyers deny ‘covert change in practice’ as charges fall despite rising reports 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 24 September 2019 19:30 BST
Women’s rights protests, like this one, have been rife in the wake of #MeToo
Women’s rights protests, like this one, have been rife in the wake of #MeToo

A legal challenge has been lodged against the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) over its handling of rape cases after the number of people charged hit a new low.

The End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition has accused the authority of covertly changing the way it prosecutes alleged rapists, amid controversy over the seizure of victims’ phones and personal records.

The CPS insists there has been “no change of policy” but now faces a judicial review after papers were lodged at the High Court on Tuesday.

Official figures show that while the number of alleged rapes reported to police have risen by 173 per cent in five years, the number charged has halved in the same period to the lowest figure on record.

Only 1.5 per cent of reported rapes now result in a prosecution, and analysis by The Independent revealed a “postcode lottery” for justice in different areas of England and Wales.

Rebecca Hitchen, campaign manager at the EVAW coalition, said: “Every day survivors of rape are being failed by a criminal justice system which appears to have effectively decriminalised rape.

“We argue 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.

“It is vital that the CPS, a state institution so central to women’s access to justice, is held to account for any internal policy change that has adversely impacted the likelihood of rape cases reaching court.”

The EVAW coalition, which includes organisations like Rape Crisis and Refuge, has crowdfunded more than £24,000 for the case.

It is being represented by the Centre for Women’s Justice, a legal campaign group which has previously brought cases including the legal challenge that prevented “black cab rapist” John Worboys from being released from prison.

Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said it had gathered a “large mass of compelling evidence” from sources including whistle-blowers and police.

“Together, they show that a small cultural shift at the top of the CPS has had a butterfly effect leading to the devastating changes,” she added.

Its case will argue that the CPS covertly changed its policy and practice in relation to decision-making on rape cases, leading to a dramatic fall in the number of rape cases being charged.

The EVAW coalition has compiled a dossier of 21 alleged rapes that were not prosecuted, in spite of what it called “compelling evidence”.

One complainant said she had been raped at knifepoint and held prisoner for two days by her boyfriend, but saw the case dropped over WhatsApp messages she sent to placate her attacker.

“This man was able to walk free and not answer for what he did to me – and if he could do that to me, he could do the same to someone else,” she said.

Katie Russell, of Rape Crisis England and Wales, called for an “urgent and complete overhaul of the system to improve access to justice for those subjected to these serious, traumatic crimes”.

The case comes amid separate reviews into the handling of rape complaints by the Information Commissioner and government.

The CPS said there had been no change in policy on how it makes charging decisions in rape cases, and argued that a fall in the number of referrals by police was driving figures down.

“These offences can have a devastating impact, and it’s essential that all victims have confidence to report their experiences,” a spokesperson added.

“We will always seek to prosecute where there is sufficient evidence to do so, in line with the Code for Crown Prosecutors.

“Decisions to prosecute are based on whether our legal tests are met, and no other reason. Anyone unhappy with a decision not to charge has the right to ask for a review of their case by another prosecutor, independent of the original decision-maker.”

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