The Guardian view on falling rape prosecutions: women’s rights are regressing

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/30/the-guardian-view-on-falling-prosecutions-womens-rights-are-regressing

Editorial

Progress is being rolled back around the world. Right wing governments are not the only ones to blame.

Thu 30 Jul 2020 18.56 BSTLast modified on Fri 31 Jul 2020 04.37 BST

March against rape and sexual violence in central London in 2011
 ‘The state of rape prosecutions in England and Wales is now an outrage and a national shame.’ Photograph: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary/Alamy

We are going backwards. The number of reported rapes that result in convictions has long been alarmingly low. But the state of rape prosecutions in England and Wales is now an outrage and a national shame. The number of people prosecuted and convicted is at its lowest on record, while reported cases have risen sharply. Prosecutions more than halved from 5,190 in 2016-17 to only 2,102 in 2019-20. Meanwhile, the police recorded 55,130 rapes, up from 41,616 three years earlier.

Campaigners and the victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird, say this effectively amounts to decriminalisation. The Crown Prosecution Service notes that the police are referring fewer cases. But they have made clear their concerns that the CPS has moved to a more risk-averse approach. Though the service insists it has not changed tack, the drop in prosecutions coincided with advice from senior CPS figures to specialist rape prosecutors to “put a touch on the tiller” and take a proportion of “weak cases out of the system”, amid criticism of the low conviction rate. That rate has indeed now risen. But the total number of convictions dropped, from 2,991 to 1,439. More rapists are free in the community.Advertisement

While the CPS blueprint for improvements has some sensible recommendations, such as training specialist prosecutors to understand tactics employed by offenders and victim behaviour, they are insufficient, and the five-year timescale too leisurely. The government’s review into the handling of rape in the criminal justice system should adopt recommendations made by Northern Ireland’s Gillen review, including legal representation for complainants and providing the jury with guidance on rape myths in every trial.

Above all, we need leaders to show that women’s safety is a priority. Women’s ability to control and protect their own bodies is regressing across the globe. The attack on reproductive rights has gone hand in hand with damage to the most fundamental right to physical safety. It is not only long-established laws and policies but also relatively recent advances that face challenge. In part, this is a backlash against hard-won progress. It also reflects the role that misogyny has played in the rise of the populist right, though it is hardly unique to it. Poland is threatening to leave a treaty aimed at preventing violence against women – at a time when the pandemic has seen domestic violence soar worldwide – after President Andrzej Duda narrowly won re-election with a socially conservative and homophobic campaign. In the US, the justice department rewrote its definition of domestic violence last year, producing much more restrictive terms that disregard elements such as psychological abuse.

But rightwing governments are not the only culprits. In 2017, France passed a landmark street harassment law, and Emmanuel Macron urged other countries to make women’s rights a “great global cause”. Yet the president’s new justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, is an outspoken opponent of the street harassment law and the #MeToo movement, and Mr Macron has appointed a man accused of rape as interior minister. An appeals court in Paris has told prosecutors to reopen their probe into Gérald Darmanin, who denies any wrongdoing; a judge had dismissed the case against him after a preliminary investigation was dropped.

Complacency and banal political or bureaucratic imperatives can damage women’s lives just as ideologically driven campaigns can. This is a particularly dangerous period, where the impact of the pandemic absorbs attention that might be paid to other issues, and the economic crisis makes people more vulnerable to abuse.

Yet thousands have marched in Warsaw and other Polish cities, outraged by their government’s plan to withdraw from the treaty. Protesters took to the streets in France over Mr Macron’s appointments. And this month the CPS and police were forced to drop the “digital strip search” policy that had made women in England and Wales divulge all their mobile phone data, following sustained campaigning and a legal challenge from two complainants. It is enraging to be forced to refight the same old battles, yet progress can and is being made. Women have every right to despair, but are refusing to do so. There is too much work to be done.

Women’s group urges Parliament to reject ‘misogynistic’ MP’s amendments to Domestic Abuse Bill

Morning Star, 9 June 2020 Lamiat Sabin

A WOMEN’S rights group called on Parliament today to reject “wrecking amendments” to the Domestic Abuse Bill proposed by Tory MP Philip Davies, who they say has a “misogynistic” record.

The Shipley MP has said that attempts to use a child as a “weapon” by keeping them away from a parent, usually the father, “without good reason” should be classed as domestic abuse.

Women Against Rape (WAR) said Mr Davies is “closely allied with fathers’ groups who deny domestic violence.”

The group said that the Bill, currently at committee stage – where amendments are considered – must ensure family courts protect abuse victims and not perpetrators.

WAR insisted that the proposed law should end the use of “parental alienation” – the allegedly unjust separation of a child from a parent – which is invoked by abusive fathers in order to “torture” children who refuse to see them and take them away from mothers who reported abuse.

The group is part of the Support Not Separation Coalition, which said: “Last week, six women described to us how they and their children have been accused of ‘parental alienation’ after they reported violence.

“One mother has already lost her children to the violent father who hits them and is so neglectful that they have been sent to live with their grandmother.

“In two cases, court professionals are recommending the children be taken into foster care to force them into contact with their fathers, including twins who would be separated. Such blatant disregard for children’s best interest amounts to child abuse.”

WAR is also demanding resources for abuse survivors.

The group argues that Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which instructs councils to assess what mothers need to keep their children, is hardly used and that millions of pounds instead goes into “a growing privatised ‘child protection’ industry.”

Mr Davies has been contacted for comment.

Secret policy change by CPS cut number of rape trials, high court told

Application on behalf of women’s group follows concern over fall in number of charges

Owen Bowcott and Caelainn Barr  The Guardian  Tue 17 Mar 2020

legal challenge over alleged changes to Crown Prosecution Service policy on bringing charges in rape cases has been dismissed by the high court.

The judges, Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Lord Justice Singh, denied permission for the case to proceed to a full hearing on Tuesday.

The challenge by a coalition of victims’ organisation sought to prove that the CPS had raised the bar for charging suspects in rape cases.

The high court heard arguments that there had been a “precipitous drop” in the number of rape cases brought to trial due to a secret and unlawful change in policy adopted by the CPS.

The CPS adopted an internal conviction rate target of 60% of cases charged and became increasingly risk averse although it consulted with no one outside the organisation about the new approach, Phillippa Kaufmann QC told judges.

Her application on behalf of the End Violence Against Women Coalition follows concern over steep falls in rape charges and convictions in recent years at a time when an increasing number of women have been making rape complaints to police.

“This change [in policy] was brought about in secrecy and no one was told even afterwards,” Kaufmann told the court.

The changes were introduced from late 2016 after an internal review by the CPS’s director of legal services, Gregor McGill, it was alleged.

It resulted in refresher training of prosecutors that in effect abandoned the established policy of a what is known as a “merits-based approach” to assessing whether to charge suspects in rape cases, Kaufmann said.

“The easiest way to [raise the conviction rate],” she added, “is to whip out those cases that are a bit weaker … No one knew about it until it was leaked by an individual inside the CPS.”

The consequence, Kaufmann said, was that some prosecutors reverted what had been known as the bookmakers’ approach – guessing the probability of a jury convicting on the evidence and becoming reluctant to press ahead with more difficult rape cases.

But the CPS, which successfully, resisted the challenge, argued that courts should not become “an arbiter of prosecutorial policy”.

In written submissions, lawyer for the director of public prosecutions (DPP), Max Hill QC, said it was factually wrong to allege that prosecutors have now adopted a “bookmaker’s test” approach.

The CPS maintained that the courts should dismiss the claim at this preliminary stage and not proceed to a full judicial review of the arguments.

“There has not been a change in policy,” Tom Little QC, for the DPP, told the court. “The fall on conviction rates is due to a far wider range of factors involving the police that are now the subject of a government review.”

Rape victims who donated to the legal challenge, because they felt failed by the CPS, are set to see their donations go towards the institution’s legal costs.

The CPS is pursuing legal costs against the women’s rights’ charity the End Violence Against Women Coalition, and asked for a request to cap legal costs to be denied. The CPS were awarded £35,000 – £41, 000 in legal costs by judges ruling on the request for a judicial review into the claims.

The coalition’s director, Sarah Green, said: “We have no regrets about bringing this case. It was the right thing to do, and it was entirely necessary to challenge our justice system institutions when they are failing to keep women safe and deliver access to justice.

“We have been approached by so many women who have been let down by the CPS as we prepared this case. We know there are really serious problems. But instead of working with us, the CPS chose to fight us.

“It is a long way from the kind of leadership we need in our public institutions … The CPS is arguably failing to keep with the times on expectations for justice after sexual violence. The situation as it is cannot hold, it amounts to the effective decriminalisation of rape.”

The charity received hundreds of donations, many for £10 and £20, via a crowd justice campaign ahead of the hearing. Many messages left with the donations were from women who said they had been raped but denied justice. One donor wrote: “Having been through the system myself and being failed on every level I so wish you every success.” Under the anonymous donation of £10, someone simply wrote: “I never got justice.”

The legal challenge also received £10,000 from the family of Jill Saward, the Ealing rape victim who became a leading figure in the fight against sexual violence.

Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, who supported the claim, said: “We are deeply, deeply disappointed that [the judges] didn’t see there was a basis on which the case arguable.

“We feel they were just not prepared to grapple with all the detail and ultimately they saw it as a factual dispute. The court was not prepared to get involved.”

Wistrich said they were considering appealing against the ruling at the court of appeal. “We don’t see this as a loss because we think we won in the court of public opinion.”

On the heavy costs of £41,000 imposed on the claimants, she added: “ It’s astounding that the CPS have pushed for as much in costs against a small women’s charity.”

Keir Starmer’s record on rape

Camden New Journal  Letters  6 February 2020

The record on rape

We take issue with the letter from MARTIN PLAUT of NW5 (‘Errors in attacks on Starmer’, January 30).  

He claims that rape “is one of the issues [Sir Keir] feels most strongly about and has worked on most assiduously. His determination has been applauded by the victims of these crimes. When he left office as DPP in 2013 prosecutions for these appalling offences were at their highest.” 

Sir Keir has been applauded by some, but others, including ourselves who work with many victims, have criticised his refusal to end the Crown Prosecution Service policy of prosecuting rape survivors who are disbelieved by the police.

[Cut from the letter we submitted: Such cases are similar to the shocking prosecution of a young woman in Cyprus who reported rape by a group of Israeli men but was forced to retract and was herself jailed.]

We have worked with a number of women the British police bullied to retract: some did, others refused but all were treated as criminals.

One woman raped at age 15 was charged with lying when police claimed to have found no sperm on her T-shirt where her rapist had ejaculated. We helped get a second investigation by another police force who found the sperm and the man was finally prosecuted. She was saved from prison and later sued the police for £20,000.

Many are not so fortunate and face long sentences – often longer than convicted rapists; one woman is in prison for 10 years. Another woman, attacked by strangers on her way home, was given a three year sentence while evidence of the assault was lost or not pursued; her brother had complained of police racism – did that play a part?

We raised such cases at a meeting with Sir Keir Starmer when he was Director of Public Prosecutions (2008-2013), demonstrating how the prosecution of disbelieved victims skews police investigations and undermines women’s ability to report rape.

To no avail – the policy remains.

That police and CPS have got worse since Sir Keir left is not evidence that he was good.

Their decision that victims must hand over mobile phones and social media history, medical and counselling records, which are disclosed to their attacker, has of course led to a further drop in rape prosecutions.

In most British cases it is not the rapists who are on trial but their victims.

Add to this austerity which has made women and children more vulnerable to violence, and has cut escape routes – refuges, benefits, etc.

When under 3 per cent of reported rapes lead to a conviction, rapists have almost complete impunity. Sir Keir didn’t feel strongly enough against rape to confront police sexism, racism and other prejudices, and press for better investigations when he had the power to do so.

LISA LONGSTAFF

Women Against Rape

Fall in rape charges despite rise in reports is ‘creating new victims’

Dame Vera Baird QC warns over failure to prosecute as charge rate drops from 6.8% to 4.2%

PA Media

Thu 29 Aug 2019 00.01 BST

 Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner, called for the government to act quickly in its review of the handling of complaints.

The criminal justice system is putting more people at risk by failing to tackle potential serial rapists, the victims’ commissioner has warned.

Dame Vera Baird expressed the concerns as official figures showed that reports of rape are rising but the number of charges being brought has fallen.

Rapes reported to police rose by almost 13,000 to 54,045 in 2017-18, compared with 41,186 the previous year, with 11,913 attacks not recorded as crimes, up from 8,624.

The overall charge rate fell from 6.8% to 4.2%, according to data recorded by public bodies, gathered by the Rape Monitoring Group and published by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.

Baird said the government needed to act quickly in its review of how complaints were handled to make sure victims received justice: “The criminal justice system is letting down current victims and creating new victims by failing to tackle potential serial rapists.”

Only one in every 50 cases results in a conviction. How can this be justice?

She added: “More complainants are coming forward, but fewer cases are being prosecuted and only one in every 50 cases results in a conviction. How can this be justice? We know that nearly four in five victims of sexual assault choose not to report the crimes committed against them. How can we ever give these victims the confidence to report when so few cases ever secure a conviction?

“We need to understand the reasons behind this failure. It is in part down to the treatment of complainants by police and prosecutors – for example, failing to update them on investigations or making intrusive and disproportionate demands on their personal data. We also know that the treatment of complainants in the courtroom can cause trauma and distress.”

The data was recorded by bodies including the Home Office, the Office for National Statistics, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), covering all 43 police forces in England and Wales and the British Transport Police. It was previously published separately.

The CPS decided not to charge any suspects in just under half the cases. For 24,280 of the offences there were “evidential difficulties”, such as the victim not supporting a prosecution. There were 2,238 offences that resulted in a charge or summons, with the outcome for 6,647 not yet recorded.

According to the latest MoJ figures, the average prison sentence for rape is about nine years.

Rebecca Hitchen, campaigns manager at the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said the figures were “truly shocking” and evidence of “just how broken the system is”.

She added: “This is a crisis and it needs the highest level of political attention. We urge the prime minister, the home secretary and the justice secretary to get fully involved in the ongoing rape review, from which very little has been heard. We urge them to demand answers as to what is going on. They should also make clear, public reassurances to women, and men, who are considering reporting rape, that meaningful work will be done to improve access to justice.”

A CPS spokesman said: “The growing gap between the number of rapes recorded and the number of cases going to court is a great cause of concern. That’s why the CPS is taking part in a system-wide review to scrutinise how these cases are being handled.” He added that the “significant fall in the volume of referrals from the police” had contributed to the drop in rape charges.

Wendy Williams, an inspector of constabulary, said it was vital that statistics about rape were made as transparent as possible and she hoped the data would help the criminal justice system do all it could to “prevent this most heinous of crimes”.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/29/fall-in-charges-despite-rise-in-reports-is-creating-new-victims

Our response to Guardian report showing a significant fall in prosecutions in England and Wales

Revealed: collapse in rape cases that end up in court, 27 July 2019

• It is shocking that after decades of campaigning by women and repeated official claims that scandals like Savile, Worboys and Rotherham are things of the past, we learn that rape charging has collapsed even further. It is not because victims don’t come forward. There is “a sharp rise in reports of rape made to police … from 2015 to 2019, the number of rape claims … rose by 61%, from 35,847 to 57,882”. Two women a week, many of them mothers, are killed by partners or ex-partners – usually after reporting multiple assaults and threats which go unheeded by police. Rape and domestic violence terrorise women daily, yet perpetrators can count on almost complete impunity.

How much does the latest drop in charging have to do with the abolition of specialist rape investigation units and “digital strip search”? We and many others, including the information commissioner and victims commissioner, objected to this indiscriminate download of victims’ social media. Big Brother Watch claims the police powers used against victims are more extensive than those used against crime suspects; lawyers question whether they are even legal.

Boris Johnson, who as London mayor made sweeping cuts to the police service, now wants to recruit 20,000 additional officers. Will any of them be used to police the terrorism of rape and domestic violence? Or will they be deployed to repress us when we protest against lack of action on sexist or racist violence, climate change, or child poverty?
Cristel Amiss Black Women’s Rape Action Project 
Lisa Longstaff Women Against Rape

New report on military abuse

On Monday 15 July, the World at One on BBC Radio 4, considered a newly published official report They also interview Donna, a survivor of serious sexual assault in the British Army who has worked with WAR for several years. Listen to the report by logging onto BBC Iplayer, find the programme and then skip to the particular segment at 16’06”.

New police disclosure consent forms

Update:

See Lisa Longstaff of WAR interviewed on SKY News, 1 May 2019

Good account by anon survivor who went through three trials:

Giving my phone to police after my rape left me in limbo feeling violated

And another survivor’s account:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/29/sexual-assault-case-dropped-refused-police-phone-rape

Also, see good article by Dawn Foster here:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/29/rape-victims-phones-police-guidelines

WAR’s comment:

There’s a lot in the news today about the new ‘national consent forms’ victims of rape are being asked to sign authorising the police to trawl through their social media – phone, internet, computer, etc. – when investigating the rape. The CPS threatens to close any cases where the victim wants to put restrictions on what material they can access. We were interviewed on TV Sky News at 12.10pm.

This is closely related to the established practice of trawling through medical health records, school records and any records of sexual behaviour/sexual history. This irrelevant information is commonly used to discredit allegations and stop the case going to court or to trash you in court when you give evidence. Rape survivors already refer to their trial as a second rape – authorising new indiscriminate social media evidence will make it even worse. Some victims are calling it a ‘digital strip search’.

The gathering of evidence should focus on the violence which has been reported between x and y, not on who you slept with or sent texts to in the past, or whether you were assaulted as a child.

The police and Crown Prosecution Service can’t be trusted to judge what is ‘reasonable intrusion’ or ‘reasonable lines of inquiry’ when their record shows how sexist they are – that is why rape convictions are at an all time low (6% of reported rape) and falling.

Police and CPS have a duty to disclose information to the defence, including where it undermines the prosecution. That some cases may have collapsed because they didn’t disclose information which should have been disclosed is no reason to institute further trawling of irrelevant material which will inevitably be used by the defence to discredit victims.

We don’t see victims of other crimes (like burglary which also often happens in private without witnesses) treated with this assumption of suspicion, so why us?

We have campaigned for years for rape and sexual assault to be taken seriously; this is a throwback to police treating victims as suspects (without even the protections granted to suspects) and blaming us rather than their biased investigations for the low conviction rate. They want to put us back in our boxes and stop us reporting and getting justice.

This measure (like the proposal to bring in anonymity for rape suspects which crops up regularly) must be defeated.

For more info see: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/29/new-police-disclosure-consent-forms-could-free-rape-suspects and most of the other national papers.

Kim Mitchell’s struggle for compensation – interview in The Independent.

Great Independent article from July, on the struggle of Kim Mitchell to get the compensation she is entitled to. She was refused because she had a minor conviction. This article also quotes WAR, and is a key demand we have put to the government, demanding they change this among other discrimination in the CICA rules.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/victim-cica-rape-compensation-child-abuse-kim-mitchell-a8465231.html