Public confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system to respond to reports of rape, to support victims and survivors, and, ultimately, to bring perpetrators to justice, is at what could be its lowest point. Police forces in England and Wales recently recorded the highest ever number of rapes within a 12-month period, yet only 1.3% of the recorded rape offences that have been assigned an outcome resulted in a charge or summons. According to Crown Prosecution Service figures, the volume of completed rape prosecutions dropped from 5,190 in 2016/17 to 1,557 in 2020/21.
The impact of rape on victims and survivors is devastating; as part of the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), 63% of female victims and 47% of male victims said they had suffered ‘mental or emotional problems’ as a result of the assault. Around one in ten said they had attempted suicide. Strikingly, those victims and survivors who shared their experiences and views with us also emphasised the negative impact of going through the criminal justice system itself. One person told us that they wished they had never reported; another, Susan, that if a friend told her they had been raped, she would not advise them to go to the police because of the stress and upset that can cause. One survivor, Emily, told us that the investigation had, ‘completely destroyed my life and changed me forever’. People who had experienced going through the criminal justice system following sexual violence told us they felt like they were being investigated rather than the suspect.
Both complainants and defendants face long delays in the progression of their cases as well, which no doubt account for the fact that some complainants decide to protect themselves from further distress and withdraw from the system entirely. The fact that the majority of cases are closed because the victim themselves does not support further action is a powerful indictment in itself.
Our inquiry looked at why rape prosecutions are falling and the role of the police, the CPS and the courts in the reporting, investigation, and prosecution of rape cases. We are clear that the criminal justice system must do better in protecting and supporting those who are affected by rape, and in trying and convicting those who are responsible.
It is encouraging that the Government and both the police and the CPS have recognised that the current situation is unacceptable and so have taken steps to drive up prosecution volumes and to give those who report their day in court. The Government’s End-to-End Rape Review, published in June 2021, is a welcome step, and Operation Soteria, a new operating model for how the police and the CPS handle rape cases—with a greater focus on the alleged perpetrator, as opposed to the person who has reported—has enormous potential if it is rolled out with sufficient support.
However, we echo the conclusion that HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) and HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) came to following their joint thematic inspection of the police and CPS’s response to rape: that a ‘radical refocus and shift’ is required. It is striking that witnesses’ views on the Rape Review’s stated ambition to return volumes of rape cases being dealt with to 2016 levels ranged from criticism that it wasn’t nearly ambitious enough, to concerns that it wasn’t likely to be achieved. The Government and its operational partners must do more to drive up charging and prosecution volumes to ensure more perpetrators face justice, and to improve the experiences of those who report so that they feel able to continue and pursue their case. We strongly urge the Government to take a number of further steps.
First, the Government must work with policing bodies to ensure specialist police rape teams can be put in place across all police forces. Despite the difference these teams make—including more timely investigations and improved communication both with victims and the CPS—a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by The Guardian found that at least two-fifths of police forces in England and Wales do not have them set up. Additionally, although it is far from guaranteed that a victim of rape will be supported by a specialist and suitably trained officer, the Government does not collect data on the number of police officers specially trained in investigating rape. Allegations of rape must be responded to and investigated by those who are properly equipped for such a role, if more victims’ experiences are to be improved and the evidence needed gathered, leading to more suspects being tried in court and brought to justice if guilty.
Second, the Government must place a higher priority on the question of the provision of independent legal advice to those who report rape. We were told that, specifically, legal advice could help victims and survivors to navigate requests for third-party material and data from their digital devices during the course of the investigation. During the course of our inquiry, a number of organisations highlighted their concerns that the police and the CPS can make what appear to be unnecessary, excessive requests for such data, almost as a matter of course. This can cause delays and the intrusion of privacy even result in complainants dropping their cases.
We welcome the fact that the Government is to consult with victims’ groups on enhancing support and legal advice for victims on disclosure decisions. However, we call for swifter and more decisive action on this. The Government must further pilot the Sexual Violence Complainants’ Advocate Scheme, first offered in Northumbria. This pilot should be extended to areas with differing demographic and geographic profiles. If engagement with victims’ groups demonstrates clear support and need for independent legal advice, we urge the Government to commit to offering it to all victims of rape, subject to the success of the pilot.
Third, and crucially, we need greater accountability and oversight when it comes to reversing the unacceptably low charging and prosecution volumes for rape. We recognise that the Rape Review commits to putting a framework in place to hold each component of the criminal justice system to account in making improvements, and to publishing progress reports and publications of data, which the Government describes as ‘performance scorecards’ for adult rape offences, in an effort to provide greater transparency. Yet HMICFRS and HMCPSI have pointed out that, despite the multiple —and welcome—action plans and strategies in operation, all aimed at transforming the response to rape, no single individual or organisation co-ordinates all the strands to provide oversight and accountability. The way that the Government will seek to hold operational partners to account if the necessary improvements do not materialise, namely in the form of higher volumes of prosecutions, and convictions of those who are guilty, also remains unclear.
We agree with the Inspectorates that the Government must consider either establishing a dedicated commissioner for rape and serious sexual offences, or expanding the remit of one of our existing commissioners—with adequate resourcing to back this up—to cover sexual violence and abuse. The Victims’ Commissioner, who has been particularly active in advocating for rape victims and survivors, must be consulted, as should the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the wider violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector, especially organisations that specialise in responding to sexual violence. The potential benefits are manifold. The post-holder could help to hold the Government and operational partners to account in responding to rape and serious sexual assault and driving charging and prosecution figures up, as well as oversee the provision of specialist support services.
Which brings us to our fourth point: the long-term provision of specialist support for victims and survivors of sexual violence that meets the extent of need. As of April 2021, there were almost 10,000 people on waiting lists at Rape Crisis Centres across the country. This is deeply worrying considering the impact rape has on the physical and mental health of those affected.
As the Government has itself recognised, it is also important to address if more victims are to continue through the criminal justice process, and so drive up higher volumes of successful prosecutions. The Home Office has stated that access to support from an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) has emerged as an important factor in making sure victims’ and survivors’ needs are met throughout the criminal justice process.
It is essential that the Government and other commissioning bodies have an understanding of the level of need and the current availability of specialist sexual violence and abuse services, including counselling and therapy, and the support offered by ISVAs. We note that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is currently undertaking a comprehensive mapping and monitoring exercise, covering the provision of specialist domestic abuse services in England and Wales. Through various mapping projects she hopes to identify gaps in provision and help to address the current ‘postcode lottery’. As the Inspectorates have recommended, the Government would benefit from a similar undertaking for specialist sexual violence and abuse services. A dedicated commissioner for rape and serious sexual offences would be well placed to propel this forward.
Much work is being done across Government, the police and the CPS to tackle the current situation and bring more perpetrators of rape to justice. But the fact remains that charging, prosecution and conviction levels remain shamefully low. More must be done. We owe it to victims and survivors, who deserved protection and who should now be supported and enabled to access justice.
As Rachel, a survivor who shared her experiences with us said, ‘[i]f it worked, if you could get a conviction, if that was likely people would report more. People would feel safer. People would feel like the police believed them. Then these criminals would know that they’re less likely to be able to get away with it.’1
1 , Emily, Rachel and Susan (the Committee held a meeting with three women, Emily, Rachel and Susan, who have lived experience of sexual violence in September 2021).