12:52, July 26 109 0 theguardian.com

2019-07-26 12:52:04
The Guardian view on rape and the justice system: victims deserve more than this

The criminal justice system has been failing victims of rape for a long time. From the initial reporting of a crime, through to investigation and trial, for decades women could expect to be on the receiving end – from police, lawyers, judges, juries and the wider public – of some combination of disrespect, distrust and scorn. This doesn’t mean that sympathy was always with the accused, or that justice was never done. But sexual mores and sexist prejudice combined to make the process of seeking justice an impossibly hard one.

To what extent we have left that world behind is not easy to say. The blame and shame attached to victims has lessened as attitudes to sexuality have become more liberal. Rape within marriage was made a crime in 1992. The number of recorded rapes has risen by 61% in four years – a change statisticians attribute to decreased stigma and better policing rather than a dramatic increase in crime. But when the proportion of such reports that lead to a suspect being charged is revealed to have plummeted to fewer than one in 65 (down from one in seven four years ago), the whole idea of progress is thrown into question. One prominent campaigner told the Guardian this week that “there is no meaningful access to justice for women”.

A government review of the way rape cases are dealt with should shed new light, although the arrival of a new justice secretary is an inevitable disruption. Among several difficult issues is the huge volume of digital evidence that can now be called on, with victims’ commissioner Vera Baird likening demands for complainants’ phone and social media records (including drafts and deleted messages) to a “digital strip search”. The collapse of several rape trials, including that of London student Liam Allan in 2017 after prosecutors failed to disclose material that could have aided his defence, have led to changes that are part of a wider pattern of societal disruption caused by technological changes. Further arguments about access to medical and other records are anticipated.

Cuts across the justice system are implicated in the kinds of delays and failures that may discourage witnesses from cooperating, with “victim withdrawal” increasingly cited as a reason for abandoning cases. The 20,000 extra police promised by new prime minister Boris Johnson could make a difference in some cases, but are a no more rational response to the collapse in rape prosecutions as they are to the recent rise in stabbings. Some of this money should be redirected to victim support and women’s services. Guidance provided to jurors, with a view to dispelling the “rape myths” that may encourage them to disbelieve complainants, or make excuses for accused men, should be offered at the start of trials rather than the end.

Beyond these practical measures lie bigger questions. How can we stop the negative publicity associated with low conviction rates from discouraging police and prosecutors from pursuing rape cases? Would victims prefer to see more cases come to trial even when convictions are rare? How can their anonymity be better protected in our social media age? And perhaps most importantly, what can we do – for example, through education, to reduce the number of rapes and sexual assaults that take place?