Government unveils sweeping reforms to improve justice for ‘let down’ rape victims

Deputy Chief Constable Sarah Crew said rape was “one of the most complex investigations police carry out” but in recent years the criminal justice system “has not been convicting enough offenders, and too few victims are getting justice”.

The Government has unveiled sweeping reforms to increase the number of rape cases reaching court while bolstering support for victims.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland QC admitted too many victims of rape and sexual violence “have been denied the justice they deserve as a result of systemic failings”.

He added: “We are deeply sorry for this and will not rest until real improvements are made – from transforming the support given to victims, to ensuring cases are investigated fully and prosecuted robustly.”

The Government’s ambitious plans include clear actions for the police, prosecutors and courts to roll out a new approach to investigations, reduce the number of victims withdrawing from the process, increase the volumes of trials being heard, protect the public and put more rapists behind bars.

Crucially, it aims to return the volumes of cases being referred by the police, charged by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and going to court, to at least 2016 levels – when the decline in prosecutions began to appear – meaning a thousand more victims will see their cases proceed. Each part of the criminal justice system will also be held to better account, with performance scorecards – on key metrics such as timeliness and victim engagement – being published every six months for the first time.

Ms Crew said: “The end-to-end rape review will assist in work that is already well underway to improve the police service’s response to this awful crime. It highlights several issues across the whole of the justice system, many of which we are already addressing, and we will act on all its recommendations. Anything that can improve the service offered to survivors will be implemented.

“Police officers join to take dangerous people off the streets and get victims the justice they deserve but, in the case of rape, that has not happened enough. This is incredibly frustrating for all of us and we are absolutely committed to doing better. Changing the system and getting justice for more victims won’t happen overnight but I am confident we are moving quickly in the right direction and already making vital improvements.”

The action plan follows an end-to-end review by the Government into how the criminal justice system handles rape. It comes after charges, prosecutions and convictions for rape fell over the past five years, with one in two victims who report being raped also withdrawing from the investigation.

Ministers have promised to do “everything possible” to reverse these worrying trends and build back confidence in the system – pledging to go even further if improvements are not seen.

Mr Buckland said: “Alongside new laws we have introduced in Parliament to make sure rapists spend longer behind bars, our action plan will drive the wholesale change needed to tackle this horrific crime and restore faith in the criminal justice system.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Rape and sexual violence are horrific crimes that devastate lives. Tragically, brave victims who have come forward to report are too often let down by the criminal justice system.

“This must change immediately. While work is already underway to address these unacceptable issues, I am calling on the police to urgently consider what more they can do to strengthen their response.

“The police must give victims the support and treatment they deserve whilst ensuring that the vile perpetrators face justice.”

Minister for Crime and Policing, Kit Malthouse MP, added: “We’ve taken a hard and honest look at how the entire criminal justice system deals with rape and in too many instances it simply has not been good enough.

“That is why today we are seeking robust action from the police, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and courts to better support victims and make sure more perpetrators answer for their crimes.

“Criminal justice agencies will also be more accountable than ever with greater scrutiny of decisions and we will monitor progress closely.”

The Action Plan has been shaped with the help of Emily Hunt who was appointed as an independent adviser by the Government to ensure that there was a strong advocate for victims at the centre of the rape review.

She said: “We can and must do better for rape victims. We must investigate suspects rather than doubting victims and we need to support victims through every stage of the criminal justice system. Because everyone who reports this crime is not just doing so to secure justice for themselves but to protect all of us.”

The review revealed wide-ranging reasons behind the fall in cases reaching court, including a strained relationship between different parts of the system, delays in the investigation process, a lack of specialist and consistent support for victims, and an increase in invasive requests for their personal data. The Government’s action plan seeks to directly address these issues and increase the number of cases getting to court, without compromising defendants’ right to a fair trial.

It includes plans for better data extraction technology to reduce the time that victims are without their phones – with an aim to have devices returned by police within 24 hours. At present, this process can take months, causing distress for victims who are left phoneless at a time when they most need support from friends and family. The money will include funding for more ‘cyber vans’ that allow devices to be analysed without the need to send them to a laboratory which can add to delays – with ‘swap-out’ phones given to victims when it is not possible to return a phone within 24 hours. In addition, new guidance for the police will ensure any request for information is necessary and proportionate to the investigation, with victims often citing handing over their personal data as a reason why they may not pursue their case.

Additionally, a new approach to investigations will be rolled out to more police forces across the country – one that places greater emphasis on understanding a suspect’s behaviour rather than placing undue focus on a victim’s credibility. Pioneered by Avon and Somerset Constabulary, it also partners officers with academics to scrutinise decisions and ensure all reasonable lines of inquiry are explored. Understanding the victims’ experience is also paramount, with investigators working closely with independent sexual violence advisers (ISVAs), said the Government.

Meanwhile, more rape victims will be spared the trauma of needing to attend a trial by having their cross-examination video-recorded earlier in the process away from the courtroom. A pilot will be trialled at a further three Crown Courts, with the Government working closely with the judiciary to consider a wider subsequent rollout. The measure is already available in all Crown Courts for vulnerable victims and witnesses, including children.

A ministerial-led criminal justice taskforce has been set up to drive forward these actions. The taskforce will be advised by a ministerial chaired expert group, including representatives from the criminal justice system who will be able to provide valued external scrutiny to, and support of, the implementation of our actions.

Attorney General Michael Ellis QC said: “This landmark publication has made one thing clear – that we must all do better to improve the system’s approach to securing justice for victims of rape and sexual offences.

“At the heart of this is a collaborative approach, from the moment a complaint is made, through to the investigation and prosecution and post-trial. We must ensure that victims are supported every step of the way.”

Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill QC, added: “Rape is a truly devastating and life-changing crime. Our prosecutors see the trauma and lasting impact on victims every day.

“The stark drop in the number of cases that have gone before a jury in recent years means too few victims are seeing justice and reversing that is an absolute priority for the CPS.

“This review presents an unprecedented opportunity across the whole criminal justice system, and I am determined to lead meaningful and lasting change in every aspect of how these cases are handled, in partnership with the police and the courts.”

The NPCC and CPS have already outlined new minimum standards for the support of rape and sexual violence victims.

The new framework published today (June 18) will enhance the way they work with ISVAs and other support services who work across the criminal justice system.

These new minimum standards include:

  • Single points of contact across the police, CPS and ISVA agencies to forge even stronger working relationships and seamless communication between partners;
  • Local multi-agency rape strategic and scrutiny groups, which will bring together single points of contacts from across the criminal justice system to oversee the delivery of the framework; and
  • Improved communication with complainants, considering their individual needs and preferences.

The CPS said: “This marks the latest step in an ambitious programme of work, set out within the Joint National Action Plan, to reduce the disparity between the number of rape and serious sexual offence (RASSO) cases being reported and those going to court. Too few victims are seeing justice and we are working hard to change that.”

The NPCC’s lead for rape Ms Crew said: “Rape is a devastating crime that can have a lifelong impact on victims.

“In Avon and Somerset we have taken a transformative approach to investigating rape based on strong academic research, which places more of our focus onto the suspect, and I’m pleased to see this project is to be rolled out to more forces.

“I meet regularly with victims’ groups and charities who help shape our improvements and I know they will continue holding us and the CPS to account on progress.

“Survivors of rape who come forward will be listened to, treated with respect and compassion and a thorough investigation will be launched. We will do everything we can to bring a case to court but if the evidence does not allow for a prosecution we will work with other agencies to support victims and take steps to protect the public from dangerous people, like Sexual Risk Orders.”

The police and the CPS have already started work on a joint action plan which is focused on better support for victims, building stronger cases, balancing privacy, additional training for officers and prosecutors and listening to experts.

National rape lead at the CPS, Siobhan Blake, said: “ISVAs do an incredible job supporting victims through the immensely challenging and traumatic experience of going through the criminal justice system.

“Closer working between ISVA’s and the CPS and a greater understanding each other roles and responsibilities can only improve victims experience.

“Over the last few months we have started to build strong working relationships and it is very clear to me that we share the same desire to see these important cases thoroughly investigated, carefully and sensitively prosecuted and justice delivered for victims of serious sexual offending.”

Ms Crew said making sure victims get “the best possible service, feel listened to and have access to support and advice is a key part of our work to improve the criminal justice system’s response to rape”.

She added: “This latest stage of our joint action plan with the CPS will see us work even more closely than before with ISVAs to make sure officers can support victims in the best way possible.

“Work continues at pace with the CPS to implement the other areas of our plan to improve training for officers and staff on dealing with trauma, keeping victims as informed as possible and making sure we gather strong evidence from the outset.”

The CPS said ISVAs and support services across England and Wales provide a range of professional support, advice and help for victims of sexual violence – whether they report to the police or not.

The new framework will be used by the police and CPS across England and Wales to build and maintain high quality liaison and communication. It can also be tailored to fit the specific needs of each local area to ensure survivors across the country get the level of the support they deserve when going through the criminal justice system process.

In January, the CPS and NPCC launched a Joint National Action Plan, which sets out a wide-ranging plan for greater collaboration to improve response to RASSO cases. It is designed to ensure victims have confidence in the criminal justice system and receive the best possible support and care while investigations and prosecutions take place.

Sophie Linden, London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners’ (APCC) victims’ lead, said: “For too long, the criminal justice system has failed victims of rape. I welcome the steps set out by the Government to ensure better support for rape victims throughout the whole criminal justice process, as well as measures to address the historically low number of rape cases that make it to court.

“Low charge rates have left rape victims feeling there is little point in reporting. And in the cases when they do, victims often feel like it is their credibility and sexual history which is put on public trial, not their attacker. When rape goes unreported, rapists go unpunished. Often, attackers go on to attack again. This is a dire state of affairs.”

She added: “From City Hall we have been leading the way in developing and working on a pilot with Avon and Somerset Constabulary, backed by the APCC, to improve convictions for rape cases, and to ensure victims are better supported through the investigation process. It will result  in the development of innovative ways to prevent prolific offenders from reoffending, and the introduction of measures to reduce the number of victims withdrawing from pursuing cases.

“PCCs and deputy mayors will also continue to fund vital local services which provide support and counselling to victims of rape and sexual violence, whether they choose to report to the police or not. We know our communities best, and it is right that the services we commission are tailored to their specific needs. I am also pleased the role ISVAs play in supporting victims as their cases progress to court is being recognised, including with additional funding.

“In order to ensure rape victims get the justice they deserve, we need urgent action on the court backlog. Rape victims are seeing huge delays to their cases, and this is putting them through yet more trauma and uncertainty. We need to see an increase in court capacity and to continue to ensure resources are given to specialist support services for victims, to help them through these long delays.”

The Victims’ Commissioner for England for Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC, said: “Victims of rape and serious sexual offences have been comprehensively failed by the criminal justice system over the past five years. There is no escaping the numbers: we have seen a seismic collapse in rape charging and prosecutions. This is a serious and long-running crisis.

“So, I welcome that ministers have today rightly voiced their shame at this abysmal record and resolved to reverse this downward trend. This is important. Even so, there is no hiding that this review presents some missed opportunities.

“I welcome and support those proposals likely to make a difference. That includes innovations like Project Soteria, which shifts police investigative focus away from the credibility of the complainant and towards the behaviour of the suspect – though not before time. The pilot has shown real potential to be transformative and to radically improve victims’ experiences and the academics who helped to shape it will also scrutinise its development. My concern is that there is only funding for one year’s rollout to a wider range of forces. However, the Lord Chancellor assures me that all criminal justice ministers will be pressing for it to be fully funded in the Spending Review. I will be holding them to that.

“Accompanied by the right level of independent external scrutiny and accountability, ministers’ plans to have performance ‘scorecards’ across the whole justice system could also drive much needed changes – particularly in the CPS, who have a dismal track record in rape. However, the ‘scorecards’ will have to be shaped with great care so that justice is protected. I am pleased that the Lord Chancellor has committed to the involvement of the Victims’ Commissioner and Domestic Abuse Commissioner on an external scrutiny panel, alongside representatives from the criminal justice and sexual assault sectors.

“We know that the Government has a mountain to climb if it is to restore victims’ confidence in the justice system. So, it is disheartening that truly transformative policies, such as the pre-recording of video evidence of intimidated witnesses, are to be put off yet again by further consultation, piloting or general delay. Similarly, when concerns around digital disclosure deter so many victims from engaging with the criminal justice system, it is disappointing to see a lack of urgency around the provision of independent legal advice to tackle well documented instances of excessive and undue data requests by police and prosecutors. There also remain serious concerns around clauses in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will give carte blanche to wholesale phone data downloads.

“While the government’s ‘action plan’ undoubtedly has serious limitations, we have to seize this moment if we are to escape this crisis on our justice system. I truly hope this review will help drive us forwards and I will be pushing ministers all the way to deliver justice for victims of rape and sexual assault.”

Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “To truly realise a step-change for all rape survivors seeking justice, the Review would need to include more far-reaching recommendations examining who is dropping out of the system and why, or the barriers to justice which mean women with intersecting identities don’t report in the first place. Without a meaningful equalities analysis, we run the risk of continuing the two-tier approach to justice currently in place.

“The collapse in rape prosecution rates clearly point to failings in a justice system that does not put survivors first, yet the review contains little that would hold criminal justice agencies to account. We would have hoped to have seen some measures examining the governance of the CPS and mechanisms that would demand greater leadership and prioritisation of rape justice among senior leaders of the police, CPS and government. We also needed more in-depth interrogation into what is going wrong in courts, including a ban on the use of sexual history evidence and an honest look at the role of juries, and the re-traumatising impact of the courtroom.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.