Out of every Prime Minister’s Questions this year, perhaps the one Boris Johnson most wishes he could “turn back time” on and do again is the session of June 23.
During the course, Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on a matter that – unlike most of the Government’s lockdown policies – he found hard to respond to. “On the prime minister’s watch, rape prosecutions and convictions are at a record low”, Starmer warned.
While Johnson apologised for the “trauma” victims and survivors have gone through “because of inadequacies of the criminal justice system”, his pay off line appeared to trivialise the subject.
“We’re getting on with the job – they jabber, we jab. They dither and we deliver. They vacillate and we vaccinate”, he said of Labour – a remark for which he received huge criticism.
It’s no wonder that the topic flummoxed the Prime Minister, due to the gravity of the situation. In the year ending March 2020, police recorded 58,856 cases of rape in England and Wales, yet this led to just 2,102 prosecutions – a decrease from the year before, in which 3,043 prosecutions took place.
So serious are the statistics that Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, apologised to rape victims, and Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, said in her 2019/2020 report that “In effect, what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape.”
How have prosecutions become so low? Although no one factor can be blamed for the record low rates, several broad explanations have been put forward for the decrease in cases reaching court.
The first is that a secret target set by the CPS in 2016 – to ensure convictions in 60 per cent of rape cases – backfired. The suggestion is that it led prosecutors to drop more difficult and/ or “weaker” cases, in order to hit the goal. In 2018, the CPS u-turned on its benchmark, but its effects are still likely to percolate.
The second factor that has been blamed is funding cuts to the CPS – while demand for its services increased. The Institute of Government estimates that funding was reduced by 28 per cent between 2009-10 and 2018-19 (after adjusting for inflation), with the number of staff at the CPS dropping by 2,410 between 2010/11 and 2018/19.
In 2019, the Government put forward £85 million in extra funding for the CPS. However, this may take a while to have an impact on prosecution rates.
The third factor, which is part of the reason services are so stretched, is the amount of evidence the police and prosecutors now have to deal with.
Technology, especially, has transformed the justice system, giving legal teams greater evidence to look over. But it means that more resources are needed – at the same time they have been depleting.
Furthermore, it can be worrying for victims to have to hand over their phone/ technological records. As Baird warned in her report, some victims “cannot face the unwarranted and unacceptable intrusion into their privacy.”
She added that: “In some cases, their assailant is completely unknown to them, making it impossible to understand why examining the data on their phone is considered to be a reasonable line of enquiry.”
Since 2020, the CPS and police have stopped using a digital consent form that people alleging rape had been asked to sign, which gave full access to their mobile data.
Baird’s report highlights other reasons why the system is struggling. One is that there are still unsympathetic attitudes to victims in 2021.
“[M]any myths about rape still persist, with victims being unfairly blamed due to what they were wearing at the time or whether they were under the influence of alcohol”, Baird wrote. So we need an attitudinal shift too.
Buckland has been deeply apologetic about the lack of convictions – promising to “do a lot better” in the future and blaming budget cuts for the fall in conviction rates.
A recent government review set out measures to improve the system. These include reducing the time victims are without their phones (to have them returned within 24 hours), and to change the way in which cross-examinations take place (videoing them earlier and away from the courtroom).
It also wants the amount of cases going to court to return to “at least 2016 levels”, and there will be scorecards in order to monitor this.
Even so, Baird and other campaigners are concerned the proposals don’t go far enough, and will take too long. In reversing the statistics, the Government has its work cut out.