Too easy an excuse

Last Saturday’s front page Guardian was grim. “Revealed: just 1.5% of rape cases lead to summons.”

This refers to the number of reported rapes that result in a summons. The stat is worse than it was when, ten years ago, I was first involved in a piece of research which tried to better understand the huge attrition rate in rape cases.

At that time the stats were bad, only 6% of reported rapes went on to a successful prosecution. Today, those stats are even worse.

A quote from Rebecca Hitchen, from the End Violence Against Women coalition, drew attention to exactly the area that we were researching ten years ago: “We also want some questions answered about the growth in the category of cases the police call ‘victim withdrawal”.

Our research concentrated on trying to understand why a significant amount of people reported a rape then didn’t continue to court. This wasn’t only because the Crown Prosecution Service did not take the case forward, it was also because of people deciding not to pursue a case. At that time, we found that the perceived empathy of the police officers working with the person reporting the rape made a difference. If people reporting the rape felt believed and understood they were more likely to stay in the process.

This totally makes sense. Rape is a particularly awful crime, usually leaving the person who has been violated with an unfounded sense of shame and self-blame around what happened. To be able to report what happened is hugely difficult, and if someone does this and then feels disbelieved or harshly dealt with they are unlikely to carry on with the process.

We found that it wasn’t as simple as the police being the bad guys. The officers were doing a difficult and emotionally demanding job and were overstretched back then (so presumably even more so now). They had huge case-loads and could tend to stereotype the way that cases were reported and mis-read potential trauma symptoms as signs of lying. A subsequent project that we carried out offered extra training about PTSD, in particular how signs of shame and thoughts of self blame can interfere with the way someone reports the crime. It also suggested more support for officers to talk through cases. At that time this was difficult to come by.

Rape cases are taking even longer to come to court now, so a supportive relationship with the police officer involved in the case is even more important. People need faith that it will matter, that their statement will be heard and will make a difference. Yet with stats of 1.5%, how are people supposed to feel any confidence in the process? And with cuts to the police well-documented, how likely is it that there will be enough officers to provide a supportive service throughout an ever-lengthening court process?

Without clear time, energy and leadership being put into improving this situation, as the Guardian pointed out, rape is effectively being decriminalised. At a time when misogyny in mainstream Western politics is more visible and seems more accepted, sadly these appalling statistics come as no surprise. Men are raped too, but the majority of people who are raped are women. Imagine if other crimes had a near 1% summons rate… GBH, for example.

The crime of rape has particular difficulties when it comes to prosecution. It often comes down to one person’s word against another’s. Yet, this is too easy an excuse for such a low rate of summons. Back when I was researching this there had just been considerable work on improving the process from report to court and in training specialist officers. Ten years later it’s clear that there needs to be much more done. There needs to be a thoughtful review to understand why the process is failing the women (and men) who have already been through one of the worst things that can happen, and then clear leadership, planning and prioritisation to tackle it. If the police really are being given an increase in funding for more officers, as promised by the new PM, then some of that spending should go here.

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