The number of reported rapes making it to court in England and Wales has continued to fall, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) figures show.
Over the past five years, rape offences reported to police have risen sharply to 59,747. However, the proportion making it to court (prosecutions) in that time has more than halved.
In the year to the end of March, the number of prosecutions (which includes those that end in an acquittal) fell to 2,102, compared with 3,043 in the previous 12 months.
“This is devastating news for victims and survivors of rape, and all forms of sexual violence and abuse. There is no disputing how dismal these figures are,” said Katie Russell from the charity Rape Crisis.
From the point that a crime is reported to the police, to a decision being made in court, there are a number of hurdles that have to be overcome.
At each stage in the criminal justice system, cases are dropped.
As a result, rape prosecutions represent a small percentage of all reported rapes. And an even smaller proportion lead to a conviction – when someone is found guilty. So, what’s going on?
The police have to gather enough evidence in order to refer a case to the CPS – the body that conducts criminal prosecutions in England and Wales.
But there has been an increase in the amount of evidence to consider, often from phones and social media. This has made these cases more difficult for police, prosecutors and, potentially, victims.
Victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird said in her annual report the level of prosecutions has got so low that “what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape”.
She said that some victims withdrew their complaints because “they cannot face the unwarranted and unacceptable intrusion into their privacy”.
“This is because many will be required to handover their mobile phones so that the data can be downloaded to see if it has any bearing on a possible criminal prosecution.”
Earlier this month the CPS and police scrapped the digital consent form that people alleging rape had been asked to sign, which gave full access to their mobile phone data.
This followed a court case brought by the Centre for Women’s Justice and an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
In the year to September 2019, about 4% of all rape cases reported to the police were referred to the CPS. Of these, just over three quarters made it to court.
Getting to court
Once a case is referred by the police, the CPS decides whether there is enough evidence to charge a suspect with a crime. Only after this can it go to court.
The CPS has been bringing fewer rape prosecutions over the past few years, which is partly due to fewer referrals by police. This is thought to be in part a reaction to a fall in the number of successful convictions.
The victims’ commissioner’s report says: “Anecdotally, some police officers say the reason they made fewer referrals was precisely because they knew that CPS were prosecuting fewer cases after 2017.”
In November, it was revealed the CPS had previously had a secret conviction rate target, introduced in 2016 – that 60% of rape cases should end in a conviction. It was suggested this may have caused prosecutors to drop weaker or more challenging cases.
Another possible reason is changes made to the Policing and Crime Act for England and Wales, which led to more people suspected of crimes, including rape, being released without bail. Previously, people might have been released on bail with conditions attached and regular reviews.
The CPS itself has launched a five-year blueprint to make sure offenders of sexual violence are brought to justice.
Max Hill, director of public prosecutions said: “It is clear that more needs to be done both to encourage victims to come forward with confidence, and to support them through the criminal justice process so the gap between reports of rape and cases that reach the courts can be closed.”
The government has also launched a review to investigate why the level of prosecutions is so low in England and Wales.
In Scotland, there was a 43% increase in convictions for rape and attempted rape between 2017-18 and 2018-19.
In Northern Ireland the number of crown court cases for rape fell by about a quarter from 2017-18 to 2018-19, although the number of defendants convicted of at least one offence was almost the same.
This piece was originally published in April 2019, but has been updated to include the latest statistics.