Rape prosecutions and convictions have halved in three years, prompting concerns that the offence is effectively being decriminalised. These are some of the challenges rape victims face in getting their cases to court.
Myths and misconceptions about what a rape victim should look and sound like can present challenges in a case, including where alcohol has been involved or where the victim has mental health issues.
Although in 90% of rapes the parties are known to one another, acquaintance rapes can be difficult to prosecute. “We still hold a lot of myths and stereotypes about what makes a ‘good’ rape victim,” says Katie Russell, from the charity Rape Crisis.
“There are a lot of very practical issues with the prosecution of cases where one party says it was consensual and the other party doesn’t. The cases that are easier to pursue from a police and CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] perspective, and will gain more sympathy from juries, are stranger rapes, where there are obvious signs of physical violence.
“In many cases, where there are clear vulnerabilities, we are seeing that is working against complainants … Cases that involve alcohol, where the defendant is known, cases where the complainant has mental health problems.”
Digital strip searches
Police can request a wide range of personal records from complainants in the process of investigating a rape. This typically includes a complete download of mobile phone data and in many cases victims are told their case will not go ahead without the information.
The process has been criticised as highly invasive and likened to a digital strip search. This is believed to be one of the reasons many people are dropping out of investigations – 41% of complainants did not want to proceed with an investigation after reporting rape in 2019-20.
This month it was announced that the form used to request data from complainants had been scrapped following a legal challenge from two survivors of sexual abuse, in a case brought by the Centre for Women’s Justice.
Changes to CPS treatment of rape
Prosecutors within the CPS say there has been a change in how rape is treated. In 2017 the Guardian revealed that prosecutors were urged to take a more risk-averse approach to prosecuting rape. Training workshops outlined how the CPS could increase its conviction rate if it prosecuted fewer cases that might be seen as weak by a jury. At the time, the conviction rate stood at 57.6%, which has since increased to 68.5% – a record high, but the number of prosecutions has plummeted.
End Violence Against Women and the Centre for Women’s Justice say the changes amount to a substantive change in policy and are applying for a judicial review into the actions of the CPS.
Fewer referrals from police
Police are less likely to refer a report of rape to the CPS for prosecution than they were three years ago. Referrals from police have dropped 40% since 2016-17, despite an increase in reports. Police have also raised concerns that the CPS has taken a risk-averse approach to pursuing rape cases.
Cuts to services
Police and the CPS have undergone cuts resulting in the disbanding of specialist rape units in police forces and increased pressure across the criminal justice system.
Russell says: “Unless you are a certain kind of person and raped in a specific way it is extremely difficult to get a charge – the system is completely broken. It’s an outrageous failure of a huge group of people. If it was any other crime there would be so much more urgency.”