Liz Kelly

LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)–Rapists in Britain are more likely than ever to get away with their crimes, despite efforts to reform the way police and prosecutors deal with the offense, a new government report says.

The report commissioned by the Home Office, the government department responsible for policing, suggests that the chance of a rapist being convicted in England and Wales is less than 1 percent.

The rate of rape convictions has fallen dramatically over the past quarter century, according to the report released last month. Only one out of every 13 reported rapes led to a conviction in 1999, down from one in three in 1977.

The report described the decrease in convictions as “shocking.”

The report also noted that the Rape Crisis Federation Wales and England, an umbrella organization for survivors’ support groups, “has suggested that only 12 percent of the women who contacted it in 1998 reported the allegation to the police.”

Attitudes of Police and Prosecutors Blamed for Low Conviction Rate

The investigation by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate reviewed more than 1,700 reported incidents of rape from June 1999 through December 2000.

The report did not identify any single cause for the failure of the criminal justice system, but detailed a litany of problems.

It pinpointed failures in the way rape victims are dealt with, both by police and prosecutors, and drew attention to the poor treatment of child victims and those who have learning difficulties.

It also criticized poor standards of collecting evidence, noting that forensic medical examiners were trained on the job rather than in formal courses.

Perhaps most significantly, it said: “We consider that the treatment afforded to rape victims throughout the investigative process is key to the prospects of securing a conviction.”

Only ‘Good Rapes’ Reported to Detectives

Police forces across the country have been trying to change their attitudes towards rape victims for two decades now. Ian Blair, the deputy commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, told a recent conference on rape that in the 1970s, up to 70 percent of allegations were not recorded.

When he was a detective sergeant, Blair said, it was sometimes his job to ensure that only “good rapes” were reported to the detective inspector.

A “good rape” was one in which “the victim was respectable, preferably virginal or faithfully married and had fought off her attacker to the extent of being visibly injured,” Blair said.

“All other rapes, particularly those of prostitutes or women with a number of casual liaisons, rape by an acquaintance, friend or ex-lover, let alone the concept of spousal rape or of male rape–which obviously did not happen–were other than good rapes,” he said.

Professor Liz Kelly of the University of North London, who was commissioned to review research on rape in Britain and abroad for the report, said some of the problems described by Blair still exist.

“There are police officers who work with these old-fashioned, stereotypical ideas and if women fall into one of the categories they don’t respect, then they’re not very good at handling that encounter,” Kelly said.

At each stage of the legal process, stereotypes and prejudices play a part in decision-making by police and prosecutors, she said. “There are some pockets of really excellent, wonderful work, but in the main it’s a lottery and if you don’t live near one of those areas then you may get not very good practice or even bad practice.”

Attempts at Reform Producing Mixed Results

The government has attempted to protect victims after they enter the court system, though most of the changes won’t come into effect until this summer and some of those introduced so far have had mixed effects.

The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act of 1999 prohibits questioning the victim about her sexual history if the objective is to show that she consented in a particular instance.

But if the defense is that the accused thought the victim was consenting, there is no bar on asking questions about her sexual past.

While reforms introduced by Blair and others within the police have resulted in improvements in the reporting of crimes and the treatment of victims, that may have contributed to the fall in conviction rates.

Nicola Reasbuck, a crown prosecutor in Newcastle, said the number of rape allegations made against people known to the victim had dramatically increased. The Rape Crisis Federation estimates that 97 percent of the 50,000 victims who came to it in 1998 knew their assailants.

But those crimes are much harder to prove because they revolve around the issue of consent and the credibility of the victim and the defendant.

“The court process is very stressful for victims,” Reasbuck said. She added that the Crown Prosecution Service needed to work with other agencies, such as the police, courts and attorneys, to try to make the process less stressful.

One U.S. Prosecutors Raised Conviction Rates Dramatically

The report made 18 recommendations for further improvements. Among them were calls for specialist rape prosecutors to be appointed.

Merlyn Nuttal, the victim of a high-profile rape and attempted murder case in 1992, said she welcomed the proposal for specialist prosecutors, noting that a similar program in Canada had improved conviction rates by 50 percent.

Under present conditions, “if you get your case to court you are the No. 1 witness, but you have very little rights in the court proceedings,” Nuttal said.

A special sex-crimes unit in the District Attorney’s office in Queens, New York, boosted conviction rates by 80 percent, according to Alice Vachss, who led the unit for seven years.

It achieved its high success rate despite her refusal to sideline the cases of “unattractive” victims–the prostitutes and drug addicts, not seen as likely to engage the jury’s sympathy, she said.

“Typically, prosecutors try to come up with the vicar’s daughter as a complainant,” Vachss said.

“We didn’t do that,” she said. “We set out to prosecute all the cases where we believed somebody was guilty. The most extreme case we had was one in which the victim was a lesbian heroin addict who had been convicted of several crimes. That resulted in a conviction.”

Vachss, who has visited Britain to talk to police and prosecutors about the Queens project, said a weakness of the British system was that counsel often did not even speak to victims before they testified.

“The only way they can convince a jury is to really understand the core truth of an event,” Vachss said. “You can’t get that from paperwork. You have to get that from people.”

Paul Rodgers is a freelance Canadian journalist based in London. He has written for The Economist, New Scientist, and The Independent, among other publications.

For more information:

A Report on the Joint Inspection into the investigation and Prosecution of Cases involving Allegations of Rape (Adobe Acrobat PDF format)
Please be patient while file is loading:

Rape Crisis Federation England and Wales:

Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999: