The number of people prosecuted and convicted for rape has fallen to the lowest level since records began, prompting outrage and concern from campaigners, who say the crime is being decriminalised.
Prosecutions and convictions more than halved in three years while rapes increased. Fewer rape cases were referred by police and in turn the Crown Prosecution Service took an even smaller number of those cases to court.
Police recorded 55,130 rapes but there were only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions in England and Wales in 2019-20. Three years earlier, 41,616 rapes were recorded, a third less than currently, and there were 5,190 prosecutions and 2,991 convictions.
The drop means the CPS prosecuted and convicted fewer people for rape in the year to March 2020 than in any other year where data exists.
The number of charges being made by the CPS increased slightly, by 6% to 1,867. However, at the current rate of improvement it would take almost 20 years to return to charging rates seen in 2015-16.
The victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird, said the new low in CPS figures meant at least 1,000 fewer rapists were being prosecuted than two years ago, a fact that was “utterly shameful”.
Cases referred by police also fell 40% in the past three years. Officers sent 2,747 cases to the CPS last year, down from 4,595 in 2017-18.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the director of public prosecutions, Max Hill, denied the CPS was sending a message to police not to send them challenging rape cases – a concern raised with Hill last year by Sarah Crew, the most senior police officer for rape in England and Wales.
He added that three or four years ago “serious mistakes” were being made. “There were cases going to court which shouldn’t have been going to court so we have had to eradicate that as well.”
But in a joint statement the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s leads for rape, domestic abuse and charging, said the fall in convictions was “very concerning”, adding: “[W]e are hearing from our officers that it is becoming harder to achieve the standard of evidence required to charge a suspect and get a case into court. Victims tell us clearly how important it is to them to have the evidence tested in this way.”
Sarah Green, the director of the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition, said: “Today’s figures show starkly that we are right to say rape has been effectively decriminalised. What else can you call a 1 in 70 chance of prosecution?
“The DPP’s constant exhortation to victims that they must come forward is frankly too much to take. How can he say that in any sincerity when the outcomes are so disastrous and when he is casting doubt on previous prosecutions?”
Thursday’s figures also show the highest conviction rate on record, at 68.5%. The data prompted critics to argue that the high conviction rate is a clear result of a covert policy change in how rape cases are treated.
Two years ago, the Guardian revealed that in 2017 prosecutors in England and Wales had been advised in training seminars to put a “touch on the tiller” and take a proportion of “weak cases out of the system”. The move would result in fewer prosecutions but a higher conviction rate. The conviction rate in 2016-17 was 57.6%, almost the lowest on record.
Following this the Centre for Women’s Justice, on behalf of EVAW, brought a legal challenge against the CPS, accusing it of adopting a secret policy in rape investigations in order to boost conviction rates. The high court did not did not uphold the complaint, a decision EVAW will contest in the court of appeal on Thursday.
Baird said: “There is no complexity in why rape prosecutions and convictions have crashed. It is a policy by CPS only to take only rock-solid prosecutions as set down in a CPS document in 2016-17 by the director of legal services and personally driven by him nationwide.”