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Why have rape convictions fallen?

26 July 2021

By Michaela Makusha

Last week, it was revealed that rape convictions have fallen to their lowest ever in England and Wales.

Authorities have been accused of decriminalising sexual assault as official statistics show that prosecutions have fallen to 1.4% in England and Wales over the last year. This is a record low for convictions since records began.

Police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) watchdogs revealed that there is a blame culture around rape conviction rates in the form of too much caution in pursuing rapists and a focus on the victim’s activities at the time of their assault. All of these factors, the report concludes, play a part in why conviction rates are so low.

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Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird said in her annual report that the level of prosecutions has gotten so low that “what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape”.

The CPS has been bringing fewer cases to court, partly because of fewer referrals by police. But, anecdotally, police have argued that they were referring fewer cases due to the low conviction rates.

Both parties blaming each other, rather than look inwardly at their services, is what the new report deemed as part of the problem. It concluded: “until we eradicate this blame culture, a real shift in attitudes seems unachievable.”

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The report comes after the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition launched a legal challenge against CPS over its handling of rape cases and the seizure of victim’s personal records and phones in 2019. More victims have been withdrawing support for investigations because of the invasive procedures followed by police.

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EVAW also brought a legal challenge against the CPS after it was revealed that they had a secret conviction rate benchmark of 60%. The case was dismissed by the Court of Appeals in March.

Kate Russell, a representative for Rape Crisis England and Wales, told the BBC that “both police and the Crown Prosecution Service must begin to take responsibility for their own roles in the catastrophic failure of criminal justice for victims and survivors of sexual offences.”

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Ministers last month had expressed that they were “deeply ashamed” of the low conviction rates for rape cases. The government’s review outlined plans to focus more on suspect behaviour, rather than the victim’s and to make sure that the victim’s phones were returned within a day after evidence gathering.

In the meantime, many victims and survivors may still not feel comfortable in reporting sexual offences unless there is a rapid change of attitudes by police and prosecutors.

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