09:24, March 17 52 0 theguardian.com

2020-03-17 09:24:03
Secret policy change by CPS cut number of rape trials, high court told





A “precipitous drop” in the number of rape cases brought to trial has been caused by a secret and unlawful change in policy adopted by the Crown Prosecution Service, the high court has been told.



The CPS adopted an internal conviction rate target of 60% of cases charged and became increasingly risk averse although it consulted with no one outside the organisation about the new approach, Phillippa Kaufman QC told judges.



Her application on behalf of the End Violence Against Women Coalition follows concern over steep falls in rape charges and convictions in recent years at a time when more and more women have been making rape complaints to police.

Q&A

Why has the charge rate for rape fallen in England and Wales?

The charge or summons rate for rape fell to one in 65, or 1.5%, of all cases reported to the police in England and Wales in 2018-19, according to the Home Office. The figure has dropped steeply since 2015-16, when one in seven, or 13.7%, of all cases resulted in a charge or summons. New figures from the CPS show the number of cases referred by the police for charging decisions fell again by 32% in the year to September 2019.

A recent report by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate concluded the service was not to blame for a precipitous drop in rape charges, but that the system – and in particular police-led investigations – was under-resourced to “breaking point”.

This is disputed by a coalition of women’s rights groups who launched a legal challenge against the CPS in September 2019.

Rape is a notoriously difficult crime to prosecute primarily because it comes down to the question of consent, often in a situation where there are only two people. In these cases evidence beyond the word of the victim or defendant is seen as central to building a strong case. Digital evidence requested from complainants, such as data, location information and texts from phones, is time-consuming to investigate. In 2018, more than half of all rape cases took more than 100 days to assign an outcome.

A charge or summons is one of the steps in proceeding to a trial. Even if a suspect is charged a case may be dropped; and if it proceeds to court a conviction is less likely than it was a decade ago.

Caelainn Barr and Alexandra Topping





“This change [in policy] was brought about in secrecy and no one was told even afterwards,” Kaufman told the court.



The changes were introduced from late 2016 following an internal review by the CPS’s director of legal services, Gregor McGill, it is alleged.



It resulted in refresher training of prosecutors that effectively abandoned the established policy of a what is known as a ”merits based approach” to assessing whether to charge suspects in rape cases, Kaufman said.



“The easiest way to [raise the conviction rate],” she added, “is to whip out those cases that are a bit weaker ... No one knew about it until it was leaked by an individual inside the CPS.”



The consequence, Kaufman said, was that some prosecutors reverted what has been known as the bookmaker’s approach - guessing the probability of a jury convicting on the evidence and becoming reluctant to press ahead with more difficult rape cases.



The CPS is resisting the challenge, arguing that courts should not become “an arbiter of prosecutorial policy”.



In written submissions, lawyer for the director of public prosecutions, Max Hill QC, said it was factually wrong to allege that prosecutors have now adopted a “bookmaker’s test” approach.



The CPS argues that the courts should dismiss the claim at this preliminary stage and not proceed to a full judicial review of the arguments.



“There has not been a change in policy,” Tom Little QC for the DPP told the court. The fall on conviction rates is due to a far wider range of factors involving the police that are now the subject of a government review.



The hearing continues.



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