Victims of sexual offences urgently need answers from the government

Sarah Champion
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

This government has presided over the defenestration of the criminal justice system in England and Wales, and it is victims of sexual offences that have felt its effect more than any other. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) violence against women and girls annual report for 2018/19 was published on Thursday. Contained within were shocking statistics that uncovered the extent to which alleged rapists and sexual abusers go without criminal sanction, despite increasing numbers of victims reporting their abuse to police.

The CPS have pointed towards an increase in the numbers of cases being administratively finalised as a reason for falling charges. Indeed, there is certainly an alarming upward trend in the number of such cases (where police do not respond to CPS requests for more information about a case within a three-month window and the case is shelved). In rape cases, the number of cases administratively finalised stands at 28.6% (up from 7.9% in 2014/15); in child abuse, the figure is 17.2% (up from 5.6% in 2014/15).

This is appalling. Victims and survivors, who risk re-traumatisation by courageously reporting their abuse to police, are seeing their cases parked indeterminately. Maybe police are simply too overstretched to close the case with CPS after new information emerges. Or perhaps the police are incapable of exploring all of the recorded sexual offences sufficiently, and some cases fall by the wayside, a casualty of nine years of Tory rule. What on earth is happening here? The government must provide answers directly to survivors.

Yet the picture is more complicated than it first appears. When you take cases that have been administratively finalised out of the equation, the CPS are still deciding to charge less. In the last year, the number of rapes that the CPS decided to charge fell by 11.9 percentage points. In the four years prior to this the rate of charges was pretty stable, falling by only by 4.2 percentage points. The data released in this report shows that the CPS now decides to charge in less than half of rape cases.

The Centre for Women’s Justice and End Violence Against Women Coalition have launched legal action against the CPS in the belief that the CPS have changed their threshold for prosecuting rape cases and are considering the likelihood of conviction as opposed to the evidential merits of the case alone. The CPS deny this, but they are yet to properly account for such a sudden and alarming drop. Could it be that the police, overstretched as they are, are unable to provide quality evidence that the CPS can hope to convict on? The CPS must explain why there has been such a steep decline in the number of cases deemed worthy of charging.

This is more evidence, if we ever needed it, of the miserable reality of a decade of Tory austerity. CPS have faced cuts of 30% since 2010. The number of police officers has fallen by 21,000 (over 15%) over the same period. Inevitably, the ability of hard-working police and crown prosecutors to deliver justice outcomes for survivors has been dented by years of neglect.

Survivors have told me that their journey through the criminal justice system is brutal and re-traumatising. The very least the government should do is ensure that every person reporting sexual violence or abuse can be confident that the police and CPS are equipped to investigate the allegation in a timely and effective manner. This is about the principle of justice and if the Tories can’t uphold it, they should get out of the way for a party who can.

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