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Rape ‘decriminalised’ as only 1.4% of reported attacks prosecuted in England and Wales

Official figures show 42,000 fewer offences charged for every type of crime

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 17 October 2019 20:02 BST
FW Pomeroy’s statue of Lady Justice atop the Central Criminal Court building at the Old Bailey
FW Pomeroy’s statue of Lady Justice atop the Central Criminal Court building at the Old Bailey (PA)

Authorities have been accused of “decriminalising” sex attacks after official statistics showed that the proportion of reported rapes prosecuted in England and Wales has fallen to 1.4 per cent.

Alleged victims are dropping out of investigations in 40 per cent of cases, following warnings over the impact of blanket demands for mobile phones and medical records.

Another 14 per cent of cases ended because of other “evidential difficulties”, even when the alleged rapist had been identified and the complainant wanted them prosecuted, while suspects were not traced in 9 per cent of reports.

The figures were released weeks after an alliance of women’s groups launched legal action against the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) over its handling of rape cases.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition accused prosecutors of “cherry picking” cases that are seen as the strongest following a covert change in policy.

“We fear that the effective decriminalisation of rape is being ignored, and that in actual fact this figure will continue to drop,” campaigns manager Rebecca Hitchen told The Independent.

“To see another drop in the prosecution rate of reported rapes, however small, is deeply disappointing. It represents real survivors who will be unable to access justice for what they have been subjected to.”

Ms Hitchen said while the government is undertaking a review of the handling of rape cases, decisive action was “long overdue”.

The Centre for Women’s Justice, which is fighting the legal action, said the state was failing to address crimes causing lasting harm to victims and letting the “overwhelming majority of serious sexual offenders get away with it, without even facing trial”.

Director Harriet Wistrich said: “If they were concerned by this virtual decriminalisation of rape they would be seeking to do everything possible to put measures in place to reverse this very disturbing trend, whether or not the cause of it lies mainly with their changed approach to decision making, instead of taking a confrontational approach to the litigation we are bringing.”

The CPS has partly blamed the police for referring fewer cases for its consideration, and says it is bound by a code stating that it can only prosecute where there is a “realistic prospect of conviction”.

But Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, said only a decade ago the CPS was charging 40 per cent of rape cases and vowed to increase that figure.

“Fewer cases are going to CPS from police [4,370 last year to 3,375 this year] but more cases are falling out of the system because of CPS charging decisions,” she added.

“There are many committed police officers and excellent lawyers involved in rape cases, but the harder it is to get a charge, the fewer police referrals there will be in a circle of discouragement which needs to be reversed urgently.”

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Research released earlier this year suggested tens of thousands of rape cases were dropped by victims before the charging stage because police investigations were worsening their trauma.

One woman who was raped by a stranger told The Independent she withdrew her complaint after officers claimed they would not be able to charge the suspect without examining the entire contents of her mobile phone.

“It made me very angry, it made me feel like I was the one on trial and they were trying to seek out ways it was my fault,” Sarah* said, adding she was concerned evidence of past one-night stands could be used against her in court.

Another, who faced the same demand despite the Metropolitan Police identifying her attacker using DNA, told The Independent the investigation felt like “one intrusion after another”.

Jane* said: “I’m not actually sure I would have gone ahead with the case if I’d known what was part of the process.”

Bonny Turner, who waived her anonymity to reveal how her alleged attacker was not prosecuted after appearing to “confess” to raping her in a Facebook message, described being questioned for five hours at a police station and called the investigation “completely re-traumatising”.

Claire Waxman, the London victims’ commissioner, is calling for complainants to have fully funded legal support while their personal records and communications are scrutinised.

“These steps are vital – we urgently need to see drastic improvements in how rape victims are treated across the board, so that they have confidence to come forward and report a crime, and know that they will be treated fairly and have the support they need to access justice,” she said.

Statistics released by the Home Office on Thursday showed prosecutions dropping for every crime type, following warnings of a justice “crisis”.

Only 3.3 per cent of all sex offences resulted in a charge or summons to court in the year to June, 5.4 per cent of thefts, 7.8 per cent of violent crimes and 7.1 per cent of robberies.

The prosecution rate for all crimes dropped to 7.4 per cent from 8.7 per cent the previous year – a fall of 41,700 offences.

The overall proportion of investigations that were closed as a result of “evidential difficulties” increased from 29 per cent to a third in the year, and almost half ended with no suspect identified.

In the same period, the average time between police recording a crime and assigning an outcome rose from six to nine days.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said: “We have warned for a long time that the scale of cuts to policing was undermining justice – these figures are stark evidence of that as more victims are being let down.”

The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, blamed the loss of almost 22,000 police officers since 2010 and a “crisis in detective policing”.

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The National Police Chiefs’ Council admitted too few crimes were being solved.

Chief constable Andy Cooke said: “This is a symptom of the strain on policing as we try to manage growing crime and demand that is ever more complex.”

The CPS has announced an independent review of its rape charging decisions as part of the government review.

A spokesperson said prosecutors could only charge cases referred by police and in accordance with its legal test, adding: “We know the fall in referrals and charges is a concern and are working with police colleagues and the wider criminal justice system to understand and address the complex reasons behind it.”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

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