14:26, May 08 41 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-08 14:26:11
Rape victims demand a say in official review of criminal justice failings

Victims’ organisations are to press for closer involvement in the government’s review of falling rape prosecutions, warning that complainants’ credibility and sexual history are increasingly being made the focus of trials.

The first meeting of “stakeholders” invited to the Ministry of Justice for consultation follows a row over how evidence from victims’ mobile phones should be handled.

The “end-to-end” review is examining how the criminal justice system deals with rape cases from the moment they are reported until they finish in conviction or acquittal.

It is being overseen by the Criminal Justice Board (CJB), which is chaired by the justice secretary, David Gauke, and brings together the home secretary, Sajid Javid, law enforcement agencies and the senior judiciary.

At its last minuted meeting in February, the CJB described the review as “work to understand what might be reducing the effectiveness of the criminal justice response to sexual offences”.

There has been an annual increase in the number of rapes reported to police since 2007-08, when the figure stood at 12,673. The number of rapes reported rose to 57,600 in 2018, up 11% from 2017, according to police figures from the Home Office.

Despite that rise, the police have referred fewer cases to the Crown Prosecution Service, which has in turn prosecuted fewer cases. The volume of rapes referred by the police to the CPS fell 9% in 2017-18 from the previous year. The volume of suspects charged by the CPS also fell 23%, from 3,671 to 2,822, in the same period.

Organisations representing charities and NGOs supporting victims of sexual violence are due to meet officials on Thursday to deliver reform proposals. They fear being restricted to a subsidiary body rather than involved in the substantive work of the rape review.

Vera Baird QC, the Northumbria police and crime commissioner, who is one of those attending, said the government “needs to learn that victims should be involved right from the start. We need to be on the actual committee.”

Failure to involve victims groups sufficiently, she said, led to flaws in the new digital consent forms used by police to obtain permission from complainants for the contents of their mobile phones to be downloaded. The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners has called for them to be withdrawn.

The sharp drop in rape charges has been blamed by End Violence Against Women and other groups on a shift in CPS policy begining in 2016. It has raised concerns over attempts by the CPS to improve the convictions rate by weeding out more difficult or marginal cases.

An increasingly large number of rape cases end prematurely in the suspect being identified but the victims deciding they do not support legal action.

The CPS itself says the fall is due to the need to spend more time and care over each case following the 2017 disclosure crisis which resulted in a series of rape trials collapsing. Defence lawyers accused police and the CPS of failing to hand over crucial evidence that would have exonerated their clients.

The explosion in mobile phone use has certainly resulted in even routine cases now often involving vast quantities of digital evidence, imposing greater strains on underfunded police, prosecutors and defence lawyers.

Baird added: “The CPS seem to have gone back to what one senior judge called ‘the bookmaker’s approach’ – to where the odds for a case are stronger. They should not see things like [the victim’s] disability, mental health issues or even previous sexual history as barriers to prosecution.”

Victims’ organisations will call on the rape review to adopt a number of proposals including guaranteeing a special advocate for every victim, to help them understand and navigate their way through system.

They are also proposing:

  • A ban on sexual history evidence.

  • Restrictions on disclosure rules for the examination of phones, as well as medical and other private records, to respect victims’ privacy.

  • Reviewing rules on cross-examination in rape cases to prevent women being subjected to degrading treatment.

  • Considering alternatives to jury trial for rape cases.

The current trial system incentivises the defence to turn “acquaintance rape” trials in particular into a test of the victim’s credibility and character as well as her sexual history and preferences, said Sarah Green, the co-director of End Violence Against Women .

“There are wide geographical variations in the figures,” she said, “suggesting it comes down to local relationships between police and prosecutors.

“They are inappropriately anticipating jury prejudices about who will come across as a perfect victim and who looks like the kind of man who would commit this crime.”

A CPS spokesperson said: “The CPS is a partner in this review and will take part, honestly and openly, to scrutinise and further improve our work.

“We have been working with the police to ensure rape cases are robust and appropriate for prosecution and that work includes strengthening the prosecution case when it is needed.

“Resources do not play a role in decision-making. We will always seek to prosecute where there is sufficient evidence to do so.”

A government spokesperson said: “Victims of rape and sexual violence show immense bravery in coming forward – they must be protected and supported.

“Their views are absolutely central to our thorough review of how the criminal justice system tackles these appalling crimes, which is why the stakeholder reference group will feed in directly.

“There will be plenty of other opportunities for victims, charities, frontline staff and others to contribute, for example through regional visits, meetings and roundtables.”

Topics

Week News

Month News

Year News