July 30: The Crown Prosecution Service has faced a barrage of criticism after rape convictions in England and Wales fell to a record low, with police publicly censuring its charging policies and a judge paving the way for a landmark legal challenge.
The Guardian reported that new figures revealed that prosecutions and convictions more than halved in three years even though reported rapes increased. Despite police recording more than 55,000 rapes in 2019-20, there were just 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions. Three years earlier, just over 41,600 rapes were recorded and there were more than 5,000 prosecutions and nearly 3,000 convictions.
Concerns have been raised that the CPS is refusing to take cases to trial out of concern that jurors will be swayed by myths and misconceptions about what a rape victim should look and sound like, especially when alcohol or mental health problems are involved. In 90% of rapes, the parties are known to one another, but acquaintance rapes can be difficult to prosecute.
Despite concern that “digital strip searches” – where police can request years of phone records from complainants in the process of investigating a rape – were putting off victims, they were only scrapped this month.
Fewer rape cases were referred by police to the CPS last year – down 40% in three years – but the director of public prosecutions, Max Hill, denied the CPS was sending a message to officers not to send them challenging cases.
Senior police figures appeared to contradict this message on Thursday, in a rare public criticism of CPS charging policy.
In a joint statement, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s leads for rape, domestic abuse and charging said the fall in convictions was “very concerning”, adding: “[W]e are hearing from our officers that it is becoming harder to achieve the standard of evidence required to charge a suspect and get a case into court. Victims tell us clearly how important it is to them to have the evidence tested in this way.”
Sarah Crew, the most senior police officer for rape in England and Wales, told the Guardian she was personally “bitterly disappointed” in the further drop and there was concern among police that there had been a change in the level of evidence needed to bring a charge.
She said officers were trying “really hard” to work with prosecutors to reach the required standard, but were finding that the amount of information required had increased and the process was taking longer. “The second point that they tell me is that they think that the interpretation of what is required, the evidential test, has changed.”
She said this might be due to a breakdown in communication between the police and the CPS, but that she was concerned that the test may not be being applied correctly. If that was the case, she said, it needed to be rectified by the two services working together.
“You join the police service to keep people safe and get justice for victims, and every single one of us wants to achieve that, but there’s an awful lot to do,” Crew added.
Meanwhile, a high court decision not to examine whether the CPS has changed its prosecution policy and practice has been overturned by the court of appeal. The Centre for Women’s Justice, on behalf of the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition, argues that the CPS has become more “risk-averse”.
Two years ago, the Guardian revealed that prosecutors in England and Wales had been advised in training seminars to put a “touch on the tiller” and take a proportion of “weak cases out of the system”, because such a move would result in fewer prosecutions but a higher conviction rate. The conviction rate in 2016-17 was 57.6%, almost the lowest on record. Thursday’s figures also show the highest conviction rate on record, at 68.5%.
The CPS has consistently denied any change in approach.