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31 October 2013

Concerns over rape prosecutions

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By Sangeeta Bedi

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Recently available statistics quoted in response to a written parliamentary question from MP Emily Thornberry show that the number of referrals of rape cases to the CPS for a charging decision has fallen to its lowest level in the last five years. In 2012/2013 5,404 cases were referred to the CPS which is considerably less than the 6,822 referred in the previous year.  Thornberry suggests that cuts to police budgets might be the cause. This may be so. It would, however, be interesting to assess from the figures how many of those cases referred by the police to the CPS resulted in a decision to charge, rather than a decision to caution or take no further action.  It could well be that the police are in fact investigating cases, only passing to the CPS those cases where there is evidence of the offence and the case meets the charging threshold, in line with the correct procedure. The figures provided also do not reflect the number of reported rapes within the year period and do not account for the number of individuals on bail.

To most, these statistics will be surprising and not follow what is perceived to be a steady trend of an increasing number of sexual crimes.  The allegations made against Jimmy Savile and other recent revelations have been constantly in the public eye, as has the number of historic sexual complaints. The drop in the statistics could well be the result of the police investigating complaints thoroughly and weeding out the weaker cases; this would explain a reduction in the number of cases reported to the CPS. That said, it is unclear whether the quoted statistics are a reliable basis for judgment; the figures provided do not reflect the number of reported rapes and appear not to take account of the number of individuals on bail.

The difficulty with sex cases, including rape (especially in historic cases), is that the case very often relies solely on the word of one individual against another.  On this basis nearly every case would ultimately end up before a jury to assess whom they believe is the more reliable witness.  A huge amount of resources and public funds go into every sex case and they are generally better prepared than other cases because of the priority that the criminal justice system assigns to allegations of rape.

The police need carefully to investigate and test the evidence in relation to an allegation. They have a responsibility to stop the case if that evidence does not stand up to basic scrutiny and, quite rightly, should not refer them to the CPS if, in their view, there is no likelihood of conviction.  In the majority of cases the making of an allegation is enough to irrevocably change the life of the accused. Very recently there has been wide publicity regarding a defendant who appears to have ended his own life rather than stand trial.

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