6 Jun 2014

Why are rape conviction rates falling?

England’s chief prosecutor has announced a plan to redress a fall in the number of convictions for rape. The number of rape charges has been rising. So where are we going wrong in convictions?

The ‘dark alley’ myth

“Despite efforts to raise awareness, many people still believe a rapist is a man in a balaclava in a dark alley, and a victim is a woman who shows her fear through fight”: Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders and Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt

The new guide launched by the director of public prosecutions and Metropolitan Police officer on Friday is partly in response to a drop in the rate of convicting those charged with rape.

Part of the problem, according to Friday’s action plan, is the belief that that most rapists do not know their victim. In reality, a rape scenario rarely fits the myth of a victim attacked unawares by a stranger in a “dark alley”, and Rape Crisis says that 90 per cent of female victims are raped by men they already know.

Ms Saunders called for a change in attitudes throughout the whole judicial process – from first investigation to the jury’s verdict – so that this myth is challenged.

Changes in the way rape cases are dealt with has led to a rise in overall prosecutions and convictions. But the percentage of suspects charged, out of those who are eventually convicted, has fallen, according to CPS figures.

The rate had been steadily rising in the five years to 2012/13, after reaching a peak of 63.2 per cent of the 3,864 cases brought to trial.

But in the last 12 months, it fell again to 60.3 per cent.

Issue of consent

“Where cases turn on the issue of consent prosecutors must focus on what steps a suspect has taken to seek consent from the complainant and the extent to which an alleged victim is capable of giving consent”: CPS-police guide

Identifying whether a victim gave consent is obviously crucial in bringing charges against a rape suspect. But the director of public prosecutions says that police and lawyers must focus more on how, not just if, a suspect has sought consent.

In court, a lawyer may try to pit a suspect’s version against the victim’s, but more attention needs to be paid to assessing exactly what steps a suspect could have taken to ensure consent was given, the CPS.

“We can’t say ‘this is only ever his word against hers’ – that is not the case,” said Sarah Green from the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coaltion. “It’s about applying the law, as it’s already written, and it’s about giving and getting consent.”

Focusing on the victim

“The focus of any investigation and case preparation should not be on the credibility of the victim but on the credibility of the overall allegation, including the actions of the suspect”: CPS-police guide

In announcing the new action plan, the director of public prosecutions cited one case where a prosecutor told the complainant that he would consider the fact that she was wearing controlled underwear, as a factor in the case.

This is just one example where the victim, rather than the act, is put under too much scrutiny.

The new plan to tackle myths also follows the release of figures in January showing that some police forces in the UK had reported 1,500 allegations of rape as “no crimes”, with Lincolnshire faring the word.

New figures show an 8 per cent rise in the number of police referrals for 2013/14, compared to the year before, and the CPS charged 700 more defendants. While this was welcomed, Ms Saunders said that the falling conviction rate needed to be addressed “immediately”.

The ‘cry rape’ myth

“Our figures show that the proportion of cases ending in jury acquittals has increased by 4.2 per cent over the past year. Myths and stereotypes still pervade throughout society and have the potential to influence jurors too”: CPS-police guide

The new guide may have been intended for police and lawyers. But it was aimed at tackling wider societal attitudes towards rape, that ends up impacting jurors.

The EVAW coalition are keen to point out that there is still a tendency for the media to give column inches to women chraged with false accusations of rape. In fact, a CPS review found that there were just 35 prosecutions from 2011 to 2012.

But high-profile cases, and the reporting of them, contribute to misconceptions that the rate is far higher. This is turn influences juries, the way lawyers prosecute – and the willingness of victims to come forward.

Delays in court system

Recent staff cuts of up to 25 per cent in the CPS, along with cuts to legal aid, have led to delays throughout the justice system. But when it comes to sex abuse cases overall, including rape, this can result in rape victims becoming discouraged, and eventually opting out.

“In certain parts of the country, a court date can chop and change, and victims aren’t told until the last minute,” adds Ms Green. “That can lead to serious amount of attrition. It looks like someone changed her mind, or that it’s not true.”

Last June, Judge Jeremy Gold QC criticised the CPS for failing to bring “basic paperwork” at the first day of a rape trial, eventually adjourning the trial to give them more time, adding: “There has been a lamentable failure by the CPS to prepare the case for trial.”

The myth that rape is ‘inherently’ difficult to prosecute

Lack of forensic evidence is one stumbling point when it comes to rape cases, mainly because victims often take a long time to report the crime to the police – if they do at all.

There are also a common theme in many sex abuse cases, including rape: the reluctance of the victim to report the crime because of the ripple effect it may have on their families – the victim and the accused may share mutual relatives and friends.

But campaigners say that studies of international and UK-wide strategies suggest that localised policy and attitudes do have an impact on rates of conviction: that rape crimes are not inherently more difficult to prosecute than other crimes.

A landmark summit held in London next week aims to tackle exactly this attitude, in relation to rape as a weapon of war. Along with Angelina Jolie, legal experts from all over the world are attending, and have warned that a “complete attitude shift” is needed to deter rape in conflict, and to bring more of the attackers to justice.

England and Wales are not the only places were conviction rates are a problem. But the myths surrounding rape appear to be universal.