Progress, what progress? Prosecuting sexual violence

Yesterday, it was reported that CPS rape prosecutors are being encouraged to raise prosecution rates by dropping the ‘weaker’ cases. A more risk-averse approach, prosecutors were told by internal CPS lawyers, will stem widespread criticisms of low conviction rates.

This followed worrying reports on Sunday, in the first in a series of Guardian reports into sexual violence, that

  • Less than a third of young men prosecuted for rape are convicted,
  • Men aged 18 to 24 in England and Wales are consistently less likely to be found guilty than older men on trial, and
  • Young men accounted for more than a quarter of defendants in rape-only cases in the five years to 2017-18.

The figures suggest that jurors are routinely failing to provide equal access to justice for all rape complainants, regardless of the age of their alleged attacker. A 32% conviction rate in rape trials last year for men aged 18-24 compares with 46% for men aged 25-59.

Eleri Butler, CEO of Welsh Women’s Aid said in response to these reports:

“Reports of this latest internal CPS advice, which follows earlier reports of young men being more likely to get away with rape, is deeply concerning on several levels.

It suggests a fundamental shift in approach from the CPS policy developed a few years ago, when the CPS were encouraged to be bold and to prosecute violence against women crime-types that may be more challenging to pursue because it was morally right to do so, to focus on evidence not outcomes.

It takes us several steps backwards from ensuring all rape victims achieve justice. It comes at a time when awareness of the extent of rape, sexual violence and harassment is high amongst the public, yet it reinforces that if you are younger, have mental health issues or other support needs, the violent crime committed against you is less likely to result in a charge.

If rapists exploit these tendencies for agencies to withdraw their prosecution or for jurors to fail to prosecute younger men, it also takes us several steps backwards from our goal of holding rapists and sexual violence offenders to account and of an end to rape and sexual abuse.

This internal advice to the CPS is unfortunately not a new approach. It echoes evidence in 2014 that police failure to investigate more challenging cases of rape meant “victim vulnerabilities effectively protect suspects from being perceived as credible rapists”. These vulnerabilities included being under 18, having mental health issues or learning disabilities, having drunk alcohol or taken drugs, and being in an intimate relationship with the suspect.

The crisis in our justice system will continue unless agencies are held to account for delivering justice for all rape victims. We need specialist training, education and community awareness raising, not further abandonment of the most disadvantaged or discriminated against survivors of abuse. This must be accompanied by a justice system that treats all rape offenders robustly.

Most of all, we need greater investment in rape and sexual violence specialist services, in our local communities, which believe, advocate, support and help survivors recover from the abuse. Ultimately, we need a fundamental overhaul in our approach to rape. Nothing less will do.”

Anyone who needs 24-hour free, confidential help and support for rape and sexual violence in Wales can contact the Wales Live Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800 (support available in many languages).