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Wednesday, 22 May 2024
Rape victims speak out ahead of legal challenge to CPS policy
The CPS has denied any change in approach to rape prosecutions.

Court of appeal hearing comes amid record low in rape prosecutions in England and Wales

Rape victims at the heart of a landmark court case have told the Guardian they have been failed by the Crown Prosecution Service, ahead of a legal challenge to how the crime is charged and prosecuted.

The case, which begins in the court of appeal on Tuesday, comes amid growing concerns about the treatment of serious sexual crimes in England and Wales. Rape prosecutions have dropped every year since 2016-17 and are now at an annual record low.

“What is happening can’t be allowed to continue and the CPS shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it,” said Olivia*, a gay woman whose case against a man she accuses of violently raping her was dropped. “To be treated the way I’ve been treated and to know that other people have been treated the same way, to not be able to get justice, is absolutely appalling.”

The judicial review mounted against the CPS by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) and End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition, will hear that a change in approach led to a more cautious approach and a subsequent collapse in rape prosecutions.

The Guardian reported in 2018 that CPS prosecutors were urged in training sessions in 2017 to put a “touch on the tiller” and take a more risk-averse approach to prosecuting rape by weeding “the weak cases out of the system”. The CPS has consistently denied any change in approach.

Reports of rape have increased by almost a third in the four years to March 2020. However, the number of rape prosecutions has more than halved, falling 60% to the lowest figure on record, in the same time period.In November 2019, the CPS admitted it had a “level of ambition” to reach a 60% conviction rate in rape cases in 2016. They told the Law Society Gazette, which first reported the story, that they dropped the policy two years later, as it may give prosecutors a “perverse incentive” to prosecute fewer, less complicated, cases.

Marie*, who told police she had been raped and subjected to violent abuse between the ages of 17 and 19, said complainants like her, who had not seen their cases progress to court, felt “beaten down”.

“We’re fighting the law, and that’s just so difficult to do,” she said. “But the Centre for Women’s Justice has just got to keep pushing, because this is happening time and time again.”

Sarah Green, the director for End Violence Against Women (EVAW), said: “It has been a very long road to the courtroom this week. In 2018 alarm bells were already ringing when the CPS’s own data showed an enormous drop in the charging rate for rape.

“Although we are a tiny charity, we decided we needed to take the risk and look at bringing the CPS to court for what amounts to an unlawful change in their rape prosecution policy and practice which was never consulted on, has happened covertly, and has had terrible consequences which very disproportionately affect women and arguably make all of us less safe,” Green added.

This is the third court hearing, after the case was originally dismissed by the high court in March 2020 and later overturned at an appeal hearing in July 2020.

The case has been crowdfunded with small donations from survivors and supporters and has raised more than £100,000 to date. The CPS has rejected the arguments presented and sought to cover its full legal costs. A judge has capped costs at £75,000.

Harriet Wistrich, the director of the CWJ, said: “There’s huge concern about this sudden collapse in prosecutions and although there are a number of different factors, the key factor we say is the training. They wanted to change the direction and bring about a change of approach even if it was, ‘a touch on the tiller’.

“The problem is, even if it’s just a very slight change, when you go from the top down it has a massive butterfly effect by the time it hits the bottom. The director of public prosecutions seeks to blame the police but in fact the police say they are tearing their hair out and building strong cases that still get dropped.”

Senior police officers have also expressed frustration at how the CPS now charges cases. In July last year they said it was “becoming harder to achieve the standard of evidence required to charge a suspect”.

Since 2010 the CPS has had budget cuts of 25% and a 30% reduction in staff. In 2018/19, there were 5,684 full-time equivalent CPS staff compared with 8,094 in 2010/11. In the December spending review the government promised the CPS a £26.4m cash increase in core resource funding.

The hearing comes after a government end-to-end review into how rape is investigated and prosecuted was announced in March 2019.

A CPS spokesperson said: “There has been no change of approach in how the CPS prosecutes rape. Our skilled prosecutors are experienced and highly trained to make sure criminals can be brought to justice. No matter how challenging the case, whenever our legal test is met, we always seek to charge.

“Along with the police, we remain committed to making real, lasting improvements to how these horrific offences are handled, so every victim will feel able to come forward with confidence that their complaint will be fully investigated and, where the evidence supports, charged and prosecuted.”

*Names have been changed

source: Caelainn Barr