At Rape Crisis we hear about the anguish of rape survivors every day. Survivors who almost never see justice, systematically let down by a criminal justice system that is supposed to protect them, yet often causes them further harm – a justice system that is so fraught with problems that it has effectively decriminalised rape.
Data from the Home Office shows that just 1.3 per cent of rapes reported to police in the last year resulted in a charge, let alone a conviction.
Rape is one of the most serious crimes prosecuted in our justice system – and while data shows that reports of rape have hit a record high, we also know that most victims never report an attack. The government’s own “rape scorecards” show how the tiny proportion of victims that get that far are left waiting years for justice.
Recent figures revealed Crown Court backlogs of close to 60,000 cases. This is a damning picture – a record number of sexual offences are being reported, tiny proportions of charges made, and those charges wait years to get to court.
We must of course remember that every statistic represents a person – a rape survivor – and that every case delayed has a human impact. Survivors approaching their court dates do so knowing that the date could be changed at any time.
The court backlogs are a result of a wide and varied dismantling of the justice system, including court closures, chronic and underfunding of legal aid, unusable rooms in court buildings that are ageing and unfit for purpose, and the insufficient number of judges and barristers. And now, with criminal barristers striking, even more cases will be delayed and there will be rape survivors who will face yet further delays in their cases.
The impact court delays can have on survivors cannot be underestimated. As they wait for justice they cannot move forward and are left to deal with the trauma of what has happened to them. To go through the experience of being raped, the reporting, the investigation, the waiting, to then have your case postponed, probably for another year or more, is unacceptable.
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Already, Rape Crisis services experience high demand for support from survivors. Our waiting lists grow each year as we support survivors for longer times due to the impact of these delays. All the while, new survivors reach out to us for help.
This growing demand is why our work cannot only be to support individual survivors in their recovery, we must also fight for the systemic change that will improve the experiences of all survivors and improve processes and experiences in the future.
Many barristers have expressed to me how heavily the impact weighs on them in taking their strike action. But the responsibility for this disaster of justice does not lie with them. They are boldly taking a stand to push for change and to ensure that the victims (and defendants) of the future have a justice system that is functioning and intact and effective.
The government has promised rape survivors change. It must now listen to and engage with the criminal bar to resolve this situation urgently.
Legal aid should be available and properly funded as part of a criminal justice system that functions and is fair. If not, the criminal justice system will remain utterly broken – at the expense of victims, defendants and all of us.
Jayne Butler is the chief executive officer for Rape Crisis England & Wales