The Justice System Is Failing Rape Victims

Conviction rapes are at a record low, with half of survivors deciding against pursuing their case. How has it all gone so wrong?

by Rose Stokes; illustrated by Joel Benjamin
04 December 2019, 9:45am

Bonny Turner has been raped by three different men over the past decade. She reported two out of three of those assaults, but none of them led to a conviction. If you find this information shocking, then good – it should be. Unfortunately, Bonny’s story is in no way unique in the UK. It’s just one of thousands of examples of a criminal justice system that is seriously failing victims of sexual assault.

In November, a government report leaked to The Guardian revealed that half of rape victims decide against pursuing their cases, even after the suspect has been identified by police. This came after a CPS report that decisions to prosecute rape cases are now the lowest on record – in 2015, one in seven cases resulted in a charge or summons, but this dropped to just one in 71 between 2018 and 2019. During the latter period, the number of reported rapes increased by 173 percent to reach just under 58,000.

So that’s more reported rapes and fewer convictions – what’s happening?

In the press release that accompanied the report, CPS director Max Hill QC said “the growing gap [...] is a concern for all of us” but insisted “it does not indicate any change in policy, or lack of CPS commitment to prosecute”. In September, End Violence Against Women (EVAW) and Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) launched a judicial review to look into what they believed was a “covert change” in internal CPS practice around rape conviction.

Their suspicion was upheld last week in a Law Gazette investigation that revealed the CPS had imposed internal targets to bring the level of convictions up to 60 percent. However, instead of leading to more rape convictions, this inadvertently precipitated what the CPS itself described as a “perverse incentive” for prosecutors to drop “weak cases” to hit targets.

As it stands, the victim’s experience of the justice system often adds to the trauma. Victims are also subject to intrusive excavations of personal data during the investigation process – but they are simultaneously advised not to discuss their rapes in therapy because their counselling notes can be accessed and potentially used in court.

Bonny Turner
Bonny Turner. Photo by Frantzesco Kangaris

Unsurprisingly, this leads many people to drop their cases rather than put themselves through the emotional turmoil of trying to reach justice. The leaked report reveals an increase in what is called “outcome 16”, whereby the victim decides not to pursue further action even after the police identify the suspect. Between 2015 and 2018, “outcome 16” cases grew from 33 percent to 48 percent.

For Courtney*, whose case was dropped after she refused to consent to a mobile data download (in which the victim’s personal communications records and social media accounts are shared with police as part of the investigation), the reasons for this are clear.

“There’s a common misconception when it comes to rape,” she tells me. “Everyone thinks the assault is the most traumatic part, but dealing with the police and the criminal justice system can be much, much worse.”

Courtney says she was petrified of sharing her personal data because of stories she’d heard about information gleaned from womens’ digital lives being taken out of context and used to undermine their credibility. “I was actually told by a police officer that they would specifically be looking for information that could discredit me.”

Courtney was also very aware that, alongside her counselling notes, any collected evidence could be shared with her attacker during the trial. This was extremely distressing, particuarly given that – as with over 90 percent of rapes, according to Rape Crisis – she knew her attacker.

It took two and a half years for Courtney’s case to be processed. Her mental health suffered hugely; she was diagnosed with PTSD and stress-induced fibromyalgia. “I went from acting in Hollywood movies to being unable to get out of bed,” she says. “Ultimately, I was made to choose between privacy and justice. I chose privacy because I felt I had to protect myself from further harm.”

The unwieldy framework of the criminal justice system for rape victims and lack of support make it even harder for victims to access help. On the same day that Bonny reported her rape, she had to consent to sharing her medical notes, counselling notes and mobile phone data – all without the opportunity to first seek legal advice.

“Navigating such a complex legal framework without support is impossible,” she says. “Unlike accused rapists, victims don’t receive legal support or guidance, and are never sure whether something you do could later be used against you.”

The whole experience, Bonny says, felt like being on trial herself. Like Courtney, she was diagnosed with PTSD after her case was dropped. “Victim blaming is so endemic that, even within myself, I felt a responsibility not to do anything to harm the case, but I wasn’t clear at all about what that meant.”

Bonny reported the first two of her rape cases. In the second instance, Bonny’s case was dropped due to insufficient evidence – even though she had shared a written admission from her attacker with the police. She was told that it was her word against his. When Bonny was raped a third time, she chose not to report it.

The resultant effect of this is that people that pose a threat to public safety are walking free. Rebecca* was raped at knife point by a man she was dating in 2017. She later found out he had a history of violence against previous partners, and served time in prison on an assault conviction.

“People kept telling me my case would be a dead cert ‘guilty’ verdict,” she says. “He was a convicted felon on probation, there were witnesses, and we had what amounted to a written confession. Like many other people, I hadn’t heard the awful statistics around conviction rates and trusted that the criminal justice system would protect me against my attacker.”

A few weeks before her trial, a police officer working on Rebecca’s case called her in tears. After raking through Rebecca’s messages, the CPS had decided it was “odd” she hadn’t gone straight to police after being attacked. When she asked the CPS for more information, a member of staff told her: “Look, I believe this happened to you, I just don’t think a jury would convict him.”

When VICE asked the CPS for a response to this, they said: “We recognise that it takes a tremendous amount of courage for victims of sexual violence to come forward. In this case, we considered all the available evidence carefully and concluded there was not a realistic prospect of conviction. This decision was upheld under independent review.”

Rebecca’s experience seems at odds with the CPS mission statement, which says it works at the “heart of the criminal justice system to protect the public and create a safe society” – especially now campaigners such as EVAW warn that rape has essentially “become decriminalised”.

“People who’ve been through this want and deserve access to justice but the vast majority of rapists and perpetrators are walking free,” says Katie Russell, a spokesperson for Rape Crisis England and Wales. “We have been calling for a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system in relation to sexual violence and abuse for many years, and it is now beyond urgent.”

The CPS told VICE: “It is vital every victim of rape or sexual violence has the confidence to come forward knowing it will be fully investigated and, whenever the evidence supports, charged and fairly prosecuted.”

Of course, it’s easy to blame the CPS. But the problem runs far deeper – like many other public services, the criminal justice system is in crisis, largely as a result of huge cuts under the Tory government.

In January, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox QC revealed that CPS funding had been reduced by 30 percent and that it “couldn’t handle further cuts”. Fewer police, fewer judges, fewer prosecutors and fewer courts are the byproduct of austerity. If this has led to a situation of relative impunity for perpetrators of serious sexual offences, then the buck must stop at those in government.

Russell adds: “It is essential the next government ensures adequate, sustainable funding for the specialist Rape Crisis services that support victims and survivors to move forward positively with their lives, regardless of whether or not they choose to report to the police. It really is the least we as a society can do.”

Courtney, Bonny and Rebecca aren’t giving up. Supported by the CWJ, all three are fighting to change the system through appeals and challenges of their cases. “I will see my attacker in court one day,” Courtney says.

On December 12th, many people are expecting to use their vote to express their feelings about Brexit. But the future of the criminal justice system and its protection of women in particular hinges on the election outcome. There is no statute of limitations on cases of sexual assault in this country. It is not too late to change the lives of these victims and help them to see justice.

* Name has been changed to protect identity


sexual assault
women's rights