The rape conviction review should concentrate as much on prevention as prosecution
Crown Court Room, St George's Hall, Liverpool | Alamy
Campaigners fear a long-delayed government review to address the persistently low level of rape convictions will focus too much on prosecutions and not enough on prevention. Laura Hutchinson reports
There is a problem within the justice system which politicians, legal professionals and independent experts are struggling to fix. It is an issue the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales has labelled “shameful,” and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has said it is working hard to resolve. It is that if you are raped in England or Wales, you are statistically highly unlikely to see justice.
Although reports of rape and serious sexual offences have increased, the number of cases reaching court is falling. Convictions for rape in England and Wales fell to a record low of 1,439 in 2019-20, out of 55,130 reported rapes. Latest CPS figures showed rape referrals were high, but cases that proceeded to prosecution remained low.
The problem is complex and prosecution is challenging. The offender is often known to the victim and the process of reporting can have a retraumatising effect, but there is unanimous agreement that the trend in rape and serious sexual offences is going in the wrong direction. Seeking solutions, the government announced a review of the criminal justice response to rape and serious sexual offence in 2019, which is expected to be published later this spring following a number of delays. Ministers have pledged it will be inclusive and seek expertise from third party stakeholders, while being led predominantly by the Ministry of Justice and Home Office.
That survey of 500 survivors of rape found just 14 per cent believed they would receive justice by reporting the crime to police
Speaking in Parliament in December, Attorney General Suella Braverman said tackling rape was a priority for the government. She said the government had delayed publication of the review to ensure there was “proper engagement,” and assessment of other published findings, such as a survey of victims of rape by the victims’ commissioner.
That survey of 500 survivors of rape, undertaken by Dame Vera Baird and published in October, found just 14 per cent believed they would receive justice by reporting the crime to police. If victims are to feel the state is on their side, the government review must produce “radical cultural transformation across the criminal justice system” she said at the time. However, some charities and campaigners are concerned that the review will focus too much on the criminal justice system and not enough on measures that could help reduce offending in the first place.
In a report published in November, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Rape Crisis, the Centre for Women’s Justice, and Imkaan – an organisation which addresses violence against Black and minority ethnic women – argued “it is hard to overstate how absent” the question of preventative measures is from current policy making.
They suggested that while there were serious practical problems within the policing and justice system which should be tackled in the review, the government must also focus on dealing with the systemic societal issues and pre-existing stereotypes which lead to violence against women and girls and play a major role in whether cases are taken forward.
This would require a broader look into the causes of sexual violence and possible solutions, engaging a wider range of stakeholders, and embedding change on a departmental, educational, and cultural level. It would include an assessment of the impact of pornography, as well as mental health, and explore what environments and backgrounds may lead to individuals inflicting sexual violence.
If the government does not make an effort to examine the underlying causes of rape in its review, it can expect growing calls to ensure that the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy due next year includes detailed plans to reduce the number of perpetrators, not just secure justice for victims.
Laura Hutchinson is Dods Head of UK Business and Political Intelligence