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