A damning new report from the UK Home Affairs Committee has found that rape prosecution rates have plummeted to record lows in England and Wales, amid a process burdened with delays and lack of specialists.
Women’s rights organisations told the report that this means rape has “effectively been decriminalised.”
63% of adult rape investigations were closed between July and September 2021 because the survivor dropped the case. Abysmally low public confidence in the criminal justice system has prompted many survivor to say they “wished they had never reported,” the report says.
Meanwhile, as of April 2021, 10,000 people were on Rape Crisis waiting lists across the country, desperate to speak to therapists and counsellors.
The inquiry found that while 5,190 rape prosecutions were completed in 2016-17, this number dropped to just 1,557 in 2020-21, despite a record high number of police-reported rapes. There were 170,973 sexual offences recorded in the year ending September 2021.
Dame Diana Johnson, chairman of the committee, said: “Thousands of victims are failing to get the justice they deserve and this has to stop. We need to see much more ambition and focus.
“From now on there must be constant review and reform of every element of the system handling rape and sexual offences. There cannot be a single step back until prosecutions and convictions are far higher than they were even in 2016.”
Difficulties with evidence were cited as a major reason behind cases being closed, and the majority of survivors who withdrew their cases often did so because of the stress and trauma triggered by police investigations. The College of Policing told the review that “effectiveness and efficiency” was key to keeping survivors engaged and preventing them from losing hope.
A number of third sector organisations who contributed, including the Centre for Women’s Justice, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan and Rape Crisis England and Wales, argued that rape had “effectively been decriminalised.”
The review said that “exceptionally low volumes of rape charges and prosecutions are unacceptable” and that “victims and survivors of rape are being failed by our criminal justice system. Rape is undoubtedly a complex, difficult and traumatic crime to investigate and prosecute successfully. However, that complexity does not fully explain the unacceptably low volumes of charging and prosecution.”
The inquiry found that only two fifths of England and Wales police forces have specialist rape teams, and that the forces which do have specialist units were better at communicating with survivors and experienced far fewer delays. For the teams with units, it took on average 49 days to reach a No Further Action decision, where they establish that there isn’t enough evidence to send the case to the courts. But for teams without them, it took them 108 days.
The report highlights that survivors who shared their experiences with the committee emphasised the negative impact of going through the criminal justice system itself and that “they felt like they were being investigated rather than the suspect.”
63% of female survivors and 47% of male survivors have been found in the Crime Survey of England Wales to suffer “mental or emotional problems” as a result of being assaulted, and 1 in 10 said that they had attempted suicide.
The review recommended that the government’s pledge to run its End-to-End Rape Review, an action plan to improve the justice system’s response to rape, must release regular progress updates and hold operational partners to account if there is no progress.
It also says more police forces should recruit specialist teams as “a powerful way to demonstrate the priority that should be given to tackling violence against women and girls.”
Rebecca Hitchen, the Head of Policy and Campaigns at the End Violence Against Women Coalition said: “This is an urgent human rights issue and we expect to see these recommendations delivered rapidly, so no more survivors are excluded from accessing justice and support.”