Mon, 15 July 2024

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We can’t protect victims of sexual violence on the cheap

3 min read

Rape prosecutions are falling while the time taken to charge suspects is increasing. A Labour government will work with both mental health and legal professionals to ensure that rape victims receive the care and justice they need, writes Baroness Chakrabarti

Our criminal justice system is in crisis – and never is this more alarmingly evidenced than by its handling of sexual violence. Our austerity-driven government and the public services it has so starved of money and morale are letting down the most vulnerable victims of some of the most serious of crimes.

Rape trials are inevitably difficult, so demoralised and under-resourced prosecutors will become tempted to de-prioritise them. But there are other serious problems with the handling of sexual violence.

There is a widespread practice of complainants being required to hand over their mobile phones to the police. The new police form – with dubious legal foundation – gives little regard to the inconvenience and humiliation that this “digital strip-searching” causes, nor does it assess whether it is really necessary in a particular case. Any suggestion that victims must automatically hand over their phones in exchange for investigations proceeding is as unlawful as it is wrong.

Women – the overwhelming majority of rape victims – are already discriminated against in the system. A trawl through their social media only reinforces the idea they are the ones in the dock. This is the effect of the purported ‘consent form’. What is required instead is legislative action and increased government spending to improve detection and conviction rates.

I recently learned of the scandal of rape complainants of being actively discouraged from accessing vital mental health services under contradictory and embarrassing 17-year-old guidance. The fear, we are told, is of victims being thought to have been “coached” by therapists, to have developed false memories, or otherwise having their credibility as witnesses undermined.

The suggestion that victims should avoid vital therapy for fear of prejudicing trials, is as cruel as it is clumsy, and the poorly drafted CPS guidance appears to be at least 17 years old. This demonstrates an underfunded criminal justice system on its knees.

There must be an emergency review of the policy. A Labour Government will work with both mental health and legal professionals to ensure that all victims receive both the care and justice they need and that the disgraceful drop in rape prosecutions is reversed as a matter of urgency.

Recent information disclosed by the Attorney General’s office shows a shocking increase of over 140% in the time taken to charge suspects in rape cases. In an answer to a written Parliamentary question from Labour, the government revealed that the average number of days until a charge is made has risen from 32 in 2010-2011 to 78 days in 2017-2018.

Of course decisions should be considered carefully, but such a long wait for a decision to charge portrays an entire process paralysed by self-doubt. This is bad news for complainants and defendants, and for the quality of justice. And with these extended wait times exposed, the need for an urgent government review of the deterrence against pre-trial therapy is even more pressing.

This system failure is a shameful breach of survivors’ human rights. Women’s groups are having to crowd fund legal action to hold the CPS to account on the way rape cases are handled.

I welcome that there is an official review into the prosecution of rape cases. But victims need assurance that it will be totally transparent. It must get to the bottom of why so few get justice. We simply must do better by survivors.

You cannot protect victims of sexual violence on the cheap. A Labour Government will better resource police, prosecutors and victim support services so that more rape victims can have the confidence to come forward. 

Baroness Chakrabarti is Shadow Attorney General. 

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