We are facing the 'decriminalisation of rape', warns victims' commissioner

Dame Vera Baird says there has been a ‘catastrophic’ decline in rape prosecutions

Haroon Siddique The Guardian

Tue 14 Jul 2020 00.01 BSTLast modified on Tue 14 Jul 2020 00.09 BST

 Dame Vera Baird said complainants were being denied justice. In the year ending March 2017 the CPS prosecuted 3,671 cases, compared with 1,758 in the year ending March 2019, a drop of 52%. Photograph: Northumbria PCC/PA

Rape has effectively been decriminalised as a result of a collapse in prosecutions that has allowed many offenders to escape justice, according to the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales.

In her first annual report since taking up the role, Dame Vera Baird QC says there has been a “catastrophic” decline in rape prosecutions, with no measures put in place to reverse it.

Endorsing criticisms raised by campaigners against sexual violence, Baird writes: “In effect, what we are witnessing is the decriminalisation of rape. In doing so, we are failing to give justice to thousands of complainants.

“In some cases, we are enabling persistent predatory sex offenders to go on to reoffend in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be held to account. This is likely to mean we are creating more victims as a result of our failure to act.”

Baird is a member of a review set up by the government to identify the reasons behind the fall in prosecutions but bemoans the fact that “a year after it was set up, we are nowhere near to completing the review and making recommendations for change”.

She says that the dramatic fall appears to coincide with a series of visits by two senior Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) figures to specialist rape and serious sexual offences units, reported in the Guardian, in which they told staff to “put a touch on the tiller” when deciding whether to prosecute “weak” cases, in order to boost the conviction rate.

While the CPS has denied a change in prosecution policy, Baird said that “it has failed to offer any convincing explanation to account for the fall in the number of cases being prosecuted”.

In the year ending March 2017, the CPS prosecuted 3,671 cases, compared with 1,758 in the year ending March 2019, a drop of 52%. Baird says that anecdotally some police officers said they had made fewer referrals – which dropped by 22.6% over the same period – because they knew the CPS was prosecuting fewer cases.

“If the CPS is unwilling or unable to deal with this failure effectively to prosecute rape, then the government must act,” she says.

Baird is also critical of prosecutors and police for demanding rape complainants’ phone contents and personal records, using digital processing notices, forms for complainants to sign, introduced early last year, which she says have the effect of allowing police “free rein” to extract data from their mobile phones. In her report, she highlights ending this “intrusive breach of privacy” as a priority for the coming year.

“This situation has to change,” writes Baird. “Victims of rape and sexual assault are being badly let down.”

Shortly after taking office, the commissioner clashed with prosecutors after launching a campaign challenging police access to the mobile phones of those who report being raped.

Prosecutors accused her of scaremongering, distorting the criminal investigations process, and discouraging victims from reporting attacks.

Responding to the report, a CPS spokesperson said: “We share the concerns about the gap between reported rapes and those cases which come to court … Working with police, we are focused on understanding the reasons for the charging gap and are pleased to see the beginning of a reversal of this trend in the past year. However, we know there is much more to be done to drive up confidence in the justice system and will announce further plans shortly.”