02:43, July 19 184 0 theguardian.com

2020-07-19 02:43:06
Women’s fears as rape prosecutions stay at 10-year low

The number of rape cases being charged by prosecutors remains among its lowest for a decade, according to figures due to be released this week that will dismay campaigners.

Annual Crown Prosecution Service statistics are expected to show that the number of rape cases charged by prosecutors in England and Wales remains under 2,000, prompting renewed concern over how sexual violence is treated throughout the criminal justice system.

In particular, the figures will encourage fresh scrutiny over the contentious advice allegedly given to specialist rape prosecutors to take a proportion of “weak cases out of the system” in order to boost conviction rates.

Campaigners say that between 2009/10 and the alleged introduction of the controversial advice – sometime around 2018 – the number of rape cases charged by the CPS in England and Wales was regularly above 3,000 a year, reaching almost 3,700 in 2016/2017.

Last year, the number of charges dropped to 1,758 and, although legal sources have told the Observer that this week’s data charts a slight rise, the figures will deeply concern women’s groups.

They also arrive amid heightened focus on what some describe as a “catastrophic” decline in rape prosecutions with an ongoing legal challenge against the CPS over whether it adopted a clandestine policy in rape investigations to drop supposedly “weak” cases.

When told of the latest CPS figures, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC, said prosecutors needed to dramatically alter their approach. In her annual report released last Tuesday, she said rape had effectively been decriminalised because of a collapse in prosecutions.

“There is no sign of a change in direction. People are still complaining and saying cases are being dropped. As long as they [the CPS] deny they have changed the policy, it’s very hard to see how they get out of it,” said Baird.

The figures also emerge soon after the release of documents, compiled by the Centre for Women’s Justice on behalf of the End Violence Against Women coalition, that contain statements from dozens of rape victims whose cases were not prosecuted. They include, in addition, an account from a CPS whistleblower whose testimony details how prosecutors were allegedly given guidance at training workshops on how to meet conviction targets with “the removal of hundreds of ‘weak’ cases from the criminal justice system which are less likely to find favour with a jury”.

Baird said this risk-averse approach, which has triggered claims of an undeclared change in CPS policy, had encouraged only a small increase in prosecutions which, in real terms, meant less convictions.

“[The CPS statistics show] a small percentage rise on the tiny number of cases being prosecuted. It means the number of rapists actually convicted this year is about 1,000 fewer than in the years before the policy changed,” she said.

Baird, a former police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, added: “It really is letting rapists go free to rape again, because we know rape is a serial offence.”

When unveiling last year’s CPS figures, the director of public prosecutions, Max Hill QC, defended the service’s record. “Rape is an awful, sickening offence and I completely understand why the fall in charging rates is so concerning,” he said.

Hill added: “Partners across the criminal justice system are coming together to look at how these cases are handled and the CPS is playing its part by opening up our charging decisions to further scrutiny.”

But Baird said the modest rise in charging rates was not remotely sufficient to offset a lack of confidence among victims.

“The worry is that it discourages reporting. You only have to look at Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile to know that sex offenders go on until they are stopped. Every time you don’t a prosecute a rapist, you run the risk that he does more,” she added.

The CPS has been contacted for comment.