Report – Rape Crisis England & Wales, Imkaan, EVAW, and Centre for Women’s Justice – ‘The Decriminalisation of Rape: Why the justice system is failing rape survivors and what needs to change’

Rape Prosecutions: New report finds system collapse and calls for political intervention on juries, police and prosecutors

55,259 rapes reported last year – only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions

Rape Crisis England & Wales, Imkaan, EVAW, and Centre for Women’s Justice find ‘rape myths’ throughout the police and courts system

Call for major changes to police and prosecutor work practices, a Special Commission on Juries, wraparound victim support, and research on which women don’t report rape

A group of women’s rights organisations publish a new report today (30 November), which will be discussed by MPs this afternoon, examining the parlous state of rape investigations and prosecutions in England and Wales, and calling for radical changes relating to police and prosecutor working practices, and the evidence and jury systems in court.

The groups have sent the report to Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland MP, who is overseeing a cross-government review of rape in the justice system, which is due to report imminently, and have asked to meet with him.

The new 80-page report by the Centre for Women’s Justice, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan and Rape Crisis England & Wales, ‘The Decriminalisation of Rape: Why the justice system is failing rape survivors and what needs to change’, refers to ongoing legal action against the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for failings in this area, and sets out overwhelming evidence that rape cases are being dropped when they should not be.

Such cases include those where:

  • there were weapons and serious injuries
  • where a suspect was shown to be lying
  • where multiple victims have given testimony against one suspect
  • where the CPS has incorrectly implied that ‘one word against another’ with no other corroborating evidence is grounds to close a case (it is not).

The report authors said:

“The disastrous state of rape investigations and prosecutions is widely recognised, and led directly to the Government commissioning a Review of the whole system last year. We are hoping this Review will recognise the depth of the problems and not allow the key agencies to get away with a few superficial changes.“That is why we are setting out in our ‘shadow report’ today a vision for victim-centred reform through the whole police-prosecutor-court journey. This is long overdue. Our society and our justice system must stop treating a certain amount of rape as inevitable and act to ensure there is a real prospect of justice when rape is reported.”

The report finds that the criminal justice system, from police and prosecution service to the courts, is riddled with ‘rape myths’, is disempowering of and even harmful to victims, and includes many leaders who lack professional curiosity as to why the outcomes are so bad and what might be done to change them.

Rape survivors quoted in the report describe difficult and distressing experiences engaging with the criminal justice system. Black and minoritised survivors faced multiple barriers to accessing justice, due to the institutional racism in the criminal justice system. This ranges from the racialised stereotypes about black and minoritised survivors held by multiple professionals, to disproportionate and discriminatory policing of black and minoritised communities.

A rape survivor quoted in the report told Imkaan, one of the authors:

“The first question they kept asking me was oh are you scared of forced marriage and because they’re white and stuff they just assumed ‘she’s Pakistani, any problem she’s gonna have is a forced marriage’. Even [the specialist BME advocate] was really confused, she was like in the statement we’ve never said anything about forced marriage. That’s the only thing they were looking at.”

The lack of support services and special measures in place for complainants also had a detrimental impact on their emotional and mental health.

One survivor said that her experience of being cross-examined in court was:

“as traumatic as the rape, except with the added humiliation of a jury and a public gallery.”

Recommendations

Anticipating the Government’s forthcoming Rape Review findings and action plan, the report authors make detailed recommendations for reform of the criminal justice system response to rape, and especially that the Government create a clear Ministerial lead with responsibility in this area who can drive accountability and long-term culture shifts across the police, CPS and courts.

Recommendations include:

  • Real accountability to elected people, through a new Ministerial lead on rape holding Chief Constables and CPS leadership to account
  • Wraparound survivor support and advocacy services that centre the needs of those who have experienced rape, including specialist services for minoritised women and girls, not a ‘one size fits all’ approach
  • Radical workforce changes throughout the police and CPS, with rape investigation and case-building made a clear and rewarded career specialism, with much stronger leadership and management, and specialist clinical supervision to try to prevent burn-out
  • An updated ban on the use of ‘sexual history evidence’ in rape trials which is fit for the digital age
  • Expansion of the testing of legal advocates for victims in rape trials, which has shown promising results so far
  • A Special Commission on Juries to examine how the use of juries does and does not service justice for trying the offence of rape
  • Examination of whether a more inquisitorial approach might be more suitable in rape trials (as has been suggested for some family court proceedings)
  • Urgently needed research on: 1) who does and does not report rape currently, so we can understand better what the barriers to justice for different women are 2) what rape survivors actually want from the justice system and for recovery more broadly 3) what actually works as interventions to prevent rape, including public attitudes campaigns, work with perpetrators, and work on key settings where rape is common.

Amelia Handy, for Rape Crisis England & Wales said

“The lack of justice for survivors of rape and all forms of sexual violence and abuse in England and Wales continues to be completely unacceptable.

“The figures are stark and send the clear message that women’s needs and rights, their safety, health and survival are not priorities.

“Time and again, overwhelming evidence of the huge scale and severe impacts of sexual violence and abuse are subsumed by fixation with so-called false accusations and the myth of their prevalence.

“Meanwhile, rape survivors are made to feel like the ones on trial, with their credibility repeatedly questioned and undermined. And they tell us of the trauma the criminal justice system, which is meant to work for them, too often inflicts instead.

“Where is the sense of urgency and determination from those responsible for our criminal justice system? When such a serious, violent crime as rape routinely goes unpunished, when the majority of rapists walk free, surely it is time for radical action.”

Sumanta Roy, Head of Research for Imkaan said,

“Unfortunately many victim-survivors experience and perceive the justice system as a site of further harm and not justice.  myths about rape ‘litter’ the whole criminal justice system and for so many women these myths are bound up with prejudicial stereotypes about age, race, class and disability.

“Black and minoritised women tell us about the level of racism and sexism and other types of discrimination from police and juries; women from lower social-economic backgrounds are subject to a certain kind of attack on their credibility; and disabled women encounter attitudes that  disbelieve they can be raped.   We need research on exactly who is not accessing the criminal justice system to report in the first place and why.

“There’s no quick and easy fix for this it needs a serious commitment to research to understand who doesn’t report and why, public awareness campaigns to challenge attitudes well beyond the courtroom and  specialist support for  every victim-survivor when they need it to address the trauma of rape and this requires a recognition of the support pathways that work best for women and girls who experience the most barriers to justice.  “  

Harriet Wistrich, Director of the Centre for Women’s Justice

“Despite legislation and policies that have imposed legal duties on the police and prosecutors to effectively investigate and prosecute rape; despite clear guidance on disregarding myths and stereotypes, and other measures designed to ensure fair trials, our report reveals catastrophic systemic failures in the criminal justice system that embolden serial rapists and misogynists and abandon traumatised victims.   

“Real change requires criminal justice institutions to be held fully accountable and leadership in those institutions to demonstrate an absolute commitment to ensure anyone working in this area understands rape culture and is determined to tackle it “ 

Sarah Green, Director of the EVAW Coalition said:

“The evidence is clear: women are being completely let down and discriminated against by the justice system. Rape as a public policy issue needs to go right up the political agenda, with a clear Ministerial lead and the intention to completely turn the current situation around.

“We urge the Government to commit to long-term change here – which is why commissioning research on who is not reporting rape, and on what works to prevent rape, is vitally important alongside reform to police and CPS workforce practices.”

Ellie Reeves MP, Shadow Solicitor General said,

“Why the justice system is failing rape survivors and what needs to change”, Labour’s Shadow Solicitor General Ellie Reeves MP said: “I want to thank all of the charities and organisations involved in writing this report.

“This report made for grim, but important reading setting out how poorly this tory government is letting down victims of rape and sexual violence on all fronts.

“Despite a spike in the number of cases reported to police, we’ve seen rape prosecutions at their lowest level on record and prosecutions down 19% for domestic violence victims too. This indicates that the mechanisms that are there to protect and support victims in achieving justice are failing.  More needs to be done to ensure that victims have faith that the criminal justice system will be there to support them throughout.“

Key statistics

  • Convictions have fallen by over 1500 since 16/17 from 2991 to 1439. This is the lowest figure on record
  • 2016/17 Cases considered for charge by CPS: 6611. Charged:3671 (55.5%)
  • 2017/18 Cases considered for charge by CPS: 6012. Charged:2822 (46.9%)
  • 2018/19 Cases considered for charge by CPS: 5114. Charged:1758 (34.4%)
  • A cut in CPS charging rate of 21 percentage points in 2 years
  • A cut in the volume of cases charged by CPS of 53% in 2 years
  • 2019/20 Cases considered for charge by CPS: 4184. Charged: 1867 (44.6%)
  • A cut in the volume of cases charged by CPS of 49% over three years