14:33, December 04 125 0 theguardian.com

2020-12-04 14:33:03
The Guardian view on a rape crisis: failing victims and society

It is not news that the system for investigating and prosecuting the crimes of rape and sexual assault in England and Wales is broken. Concerns about the large number of these offences that go unreported, and the low rate of convictions, date back decades and have long formed part of wider feminist critiques of the justice system. But the position with regard to rape prosecutions has, rather than improving, recently grown markedly worse. While the number of rapes reported to police almost tripled between 2014 and 2018 – an extraordinary statistic that deserves more attention than it has received – the proportion of such reports leading to criminal convictions has plummeted.

In 2019, 55,259 rapes were reported to police in England and Wales; the same year saw 702 rape convictions. Currently, there is around a one in 70 chance that a complaint of rape will result in even a charge, let alone a prison sentence. Little wonder that a report by an alliance of women’s groups, published earlier this week in the hope of influencing a government-commissioned review that is due to be released shortly, describes the situation as an “unprecedented crisis” in which these crimes have been effectively decriminalised.

This is not a one-dimensional problem. It is not clear, for example, whether the huge increase in reports of rape is solely due to victims having become more willing to go to the police, perhaps emboldened by the #MeToo movement and a more general social trend towards openness; or whether rape itself has become more frequent. While 85% of rape victims are women and girls, the jailing this year of Reynhard Sinaga, who is believed to have raped 195 men and described as Britain’s most prolific rapist, was a pointed reminder that rape does not always entail a male perpetrator and female victim.

The majority of those being failed by the system are, however, female. And it is only due to the persistence of journalists, campaigners and victims that possible explanations for this failure have been dragged into the light. The practice of “digital strip searches”, where complainants were instructed to hand over huge amounts of personal data to police, was only dropped this year after legal action was threatened. Next month, a judicial review brought by the Centre for Women’s Justice will examine whether training given by senior figures at the Crown Prosecution Service, and uncovered by the Guardian, amounted to a change in approach to so-called “weak cases” – and if so, whether this was legal.

The report also draws attention to the practice of prosecutors offering “early investigative advice” to police, leading to charges being dropped, and highlights the need for specialist training, reversing recent cuts. But while the funding crisis enveloping the justice system is one problem, and ingrained sexism is another, these are not the only reasons why rape trials are difficult.

In criminal law, the bar for a guilty verdict is high: jurors must be “sure” that a person is guilty. In cases that come down to arguments about consent, this threshold can be hard to reach, with juries particularly reluctant to convict younger defendants, as a 2018 Guardian investigation discovered. Further restricting the use of “sexual history evidence” to undermine a complainant’s credibility is one way to tackle this; training juries to discount victim-blaming “rape myths” is another.

A more radical overhaul should now be considered. MPs and women’s justice campaigners have previously questioned the role of juries, and the overall suitability of our adversarial legal system, in rape cases. Ministers should commission research, drawing on international evidence, that takes seriously the idea of alternatives – for example, specialist courts. The needs of victims, both for justice and recovery, should be at the centre: a system that does not serve them cannot serve society either. But they are not the only stakeholders: the present situation, in which most rapists go unpunished, is dangerous. There will be no quick win: this is a complex policy area. Any decision to restrict jury trials would have to be weighed carefully. But reformers should be encouraged by the knowledge that the scope for improvement is vast.