The Government has apologised for “failing” rape victims over years of plunging conviction levels, as it set out plans for a “system and culture change”.
A long-awaited review into a decline in rape prosecutions promises sweeping reform of how cases are handled in England and Wales.
They cited a raft of measures intended to see the volume of allegations referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the number of suspects charged, and the amount of cases reaching court return to 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament.
Measures include a pilot scheme aimed at reducing cross-examination of victims in court by conducting pre-recorded interviews and a nationwide recognition that only evidence about the complainant that is pertinent to the case should be used.
A new approach to investigations which ensures that there is an “early and robust assessment of suspect behaviour and offending patterns” is also among measures included.
The review, which was commissioned more than two years ago, said: “The current situation is totally unacceptable and the Government is determined to change it: we owe this to every victim and are extremely sorry that the system has reached this point.”
Campaigners welcomed the action plan and the apology. But Dame Vera Baird QC, the victims’ commissioner, was among those to claim the review “presents some missed opportunities”.
The latest CPS figures for 2019-20 show 1,439 suspects were convicted of rape or lesser offences in England and Wales last year – the lowest level since records began, and down from 1,925 the previous year, despite reports of adult rape to police almost doubling since 2015-16.
There are an estimated 128,000 victims of rape and attempted rape a year, but only 1.6 per cent of reported cases results in a charge.
Summarising the report’s findings, Mr Buckland, Ms Patel and Attorney General Michael Ellis QC wrote: “These are trends of which we are deeply ashamed. Victims of rape are being failed.
“Thousands of victims have gone without justice. But this isn’t just about numbers – every instance involves a real person who has suffered a truly terrible crime.
“Our mission, set out in this publication, is to understand why we are letting down rape victims, and to right this wrong.”
Katie Russell, national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England and Wales, said the review contained many positives – not least the apology – but said she was concerned about a lack of urgency to bring about change.
She said: “Whether what has been announced today will be enough remains to be seen.
“But we sincerely hope it will lead to change and we are fully invested in it being a success – it has to be a success for the benefit of victims and survivors who are currently being failed, and victims and survivors of the future.
“Those improvements are long overdue – this is a genuine crisis.”
Her colleague, Amelia Handy, added: “Overall, while there are individual elements of the Government’s report that are encouraging, it’s hard to identify any big commitments that will radically and swiftly improve the experience of the justice system for victims and survivors.”
And Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, added: “To rebuild the public confidence that has been so deeply damaged by the collapse in rape prosecutions, we urgently need to start seeing improvements, and investments in levelling up across the whole justice system.”
Shadow solicitor general Ellie Reeves said the review and its recommendations “do not go far enough”.
She said: “This review was a real opportunity to improve the criminal justice system for victims of rape, and it has missed that opportunity.”
Figures show that in 2015-16 a total of 6,855 rape cases were referred to the CPS by police, with 4,643 rape prosecutions.
Around 13 per cent of reported rape cases in 2015-16 ended in a suspect being charged, dropping to just 3 per cent in 2019-20.
The review said it found no one specific cause for the overall drop in prosecutions.
The Government said it would develop “scorecards” to assess how the system is performing against metrics such as timeliness, quality of cases and victim engagement, although it would probably not be in the form of a regionalised “league table”.
The review said alleged victims may still be asked to hand over their mobile telephones, but that any digital material is “strictly limited to what is necessary and proportionate” for investigators, and that complainants should routinely have their device returned to them within 24 hours.
Mr Buckland said: “It can’t be a fishing expedition. We need everybody to apply the rules and only look at what’s relevant and proportionate – your whole life is not on display.”
The Justice Secretary said he also wanted to move away from “the obsessive focus on the credibility of the victim”, with the review adding that emphasis will instead be placed upon the suspect’s offending past, to “help ensure decision-making is based on evidence, rather than subjective judgments of victim credibility”.
The review said the measures such as updating legal guidance on addressing rape myths and stereotypes aimed to increase confidence in the judicial process, allowing greater numbers of victims to come forward, with early collaboration between the police and the CPS helping build a stronger case, resulting in a higher number of early guilty pleas.
The review comes a week after a damning Ofsted report which found sexual harassment had been “normalised” in schools.
Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal ruled the CPS did not change its policy on prosecuting alleged rapes, amid a claim from campaign groups that prosecutors became more risk-averse.
Max Hill QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, said: “The stark drop in the number of cases that have gone before a jury in recent years means too few victims are seeing justice and reversing that is an absolute priority for the CPS.
“This review presents an unprecedented opportunity across the whole criminal justice system, and I am determined to lead meaningful and lasting change in every aspect of how these cases are handled, in partnership with the police and the courts.”