In 2010 the Labour government commissioned Baroness Vivien Stern to oversee a review into how rape complaints are handled by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
The review followed the catastrophic failure by police to take complaints against serial sex attacker John Warboys seriously, leaving him free to rape and sexually assault at least 85 women.
The review is worth reading because it shows how the “austerity regime” is impeding the possibility of real progress in helping the victims of sexual violence.
There is a consensus now (even in government!) that Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) help many more women and men, including those who would not otherwise seek help. More SARCs are needed but the government has no intention of providing them.
Other ostensibly radical goals, both in the review and the government’s response to the review, are much less than they seem. The government says it favours a “multi-agency” approach to tackling sex crime but this is next to useless if they are not prepared to provide extra cash to enable public agencies to work together.
Recently the government has pushed the CPS into being more “generous” in its prosecution of rape complaints —“believing the victim” is the new watchword (yes, decades after feminists argued for this common sense approach). But neither lawyers nor police will do that if time, training and again money are not put into developing a more appropriate, sensitive and holistic response from the moment people come forward to make a complaint.
The complacency of the Stern Review was picked up on by the media, which pointed to the way Stern criticised campaigners’ use of the fact that only six per cent of rape complaints end with a conviction in court.
This statistic, Stern says, is not adequately explained. The six per cent represents an “attrition rate”. The vast majority of cases drop out of the system at the stage of police investigation, when being considered by the CPS, and when being prepared for court. However, Stern says, once a rape is prosecuted more than half will end in a conviction. Emphasising the “good news story” is all very well, but what Stern wants to argue is that substantial improvements in the attrition rate are unlikely. And, in any case, allowing victims to get “their day in court” isn’t everything.
But an 80 per cent drop out/attrition rate is appalling! Rape is very serious crime and complaints are never casually made. We also know that only a small percentage of rapes (an estimated 15 per cent of rapes on women) are reported to the police.
Research into the factors behind the attrition rate is limited.
The Stern Review gives a partial picture if it is read critically. A better picture is in a 2005 study commissioned by the Home Office from London Metropolitan University researchers. The report, “A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases”, uses statistics generated by the first Sexual Assault Referral Centres established in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
The factors are:
• Normal “drop out”: suspects disappearing, ill-founded third party complaints, and false allegations (which contrary to police and some public views is in a “normal” range of between 3 and 11 per cent).
• Insensitive contact with the police and poor and limited police specialist interviewing skills. Most people prefer to deal with female police but whether or not a trained female police officer is available is a matter of luck. Police specialist services are patchy. Communication from the police with the victim about the progress of a case can be poor. Neither Stern nor the government recommends radical action to sort this out.
• Invasiveness of examinations and intrusiveness of questioning which can only be partially mitigated by sensitive support. Going to court is a particularly difficult prospect for rape survivors, many say it is like “reliving” the trauma.
• The limited numbers of Sexual Assault Referral Centres. These are specialist centres where medical, counselling and forensic services can be accessed for anyone who has been raped or sexually assaulted. Though SARCs are universally recognised as “best practice” the government does not plan to fund any more than one SARC per police area — often huge geographical areas.
• Insensitive gathering of evidence. Many victims are examined by non-specialist, male forensic doctors. They may be forced to wait for long periods before seeing any doctor.
• Conservative culture of prosecution. Both the police and CPS have targets to meet on prosecutions (for the police) and successful outcomes (for the CPS). Only one third of all cases are even considered by the CPS and two-thirds of these are not pursued. The “target culture” is a big factor in the decision-making process, building in conservative assumptions about an already structurally difficult to prosecute crime.
• Attitudes of disbelief. The police’s working assumption is that inconsistencies and hesitancies in the accounts of people making a complaint must amount to dishonesty (rather than trauma, ambivalence, self-doubt, feeling intimidated). The attitude is reinforced by sexist prejudices, e.g., that female complainants often try to “get revenge” on ex-partners, or maybe they were “asking for it” by drinking to excess, and so on.
• Particular difficulties of some adults reporting rape. Homeless women, drug users, the disabled and vulnerable adults are particularly failed by the insensitive, amateurish, utilitarian and sexist character of provision.
• Being threatened or pressurised into dropping a case, e.g., by the perpetrator (maybe a partner or ex-partner), or a family member.
• Feeling responsible for the welfare of partners and children.
It should come as no surprise to us that neither Stern nor the governmental consensus she reflects wants to spend the necessary money on providing better and more specialist services.
But is the socialist and feminist response simply to argue for more money for the good services we know exist — SARCs and Independent Sexual Violence Advisors? These services cannot by-pass the police but do we really want to “take responsibility” for the better training of police?
No. But it is our duty to point out that however flawed it is “bourgeois justice” (a “day in court”), as well as the desire to protect others, is what many want when they come to the police to make a report. To get there we need humane and transparent approach to these vital public services — with as much expertise as is needed.
This article does not claim to know exactly what that might mean. I hope it will spark discussion.
But as health and other services are cut, we need to be more informed and involved in campaigning to end the shoddy deal currently offered by the criminal justice system and defending and extending the best it has to offer.
Sexual violence — some statistics
In January 2013, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Home Office released the first ever joint Official Statistics bulletin on sexual violence in England and Wales.
Based on data from the Crime Survey over three years to 2012:
• An average of 2.5 per cent of females and 0.4 per cent of males said they had been a victim of a sexual offence (including attempts). That is 404,000 females and 72,000 males.
• Around 85,000 females and 12,000 men report being the victim of rape or sexual assault by penetration.
• Around one in 20 females aged 16 to 59 reported being a victim of a serious sexual offence since the age of 16.
• Around 90 per cent of victims knew the perpetrator.
• Only 15 per cent of female victims of the most serious offences had reported the incident to the police.
• In 2011-12 the police recorded a total of 53,700 sexual offences across England and Wales. The most serious offences of rape and sexual assault accounted for 71 per cent of the total.
• The detection rate of 30 per cent for sexual offences was higher than for some other offences, such as robbery (21 per cent) and burglary (13 per cent); it was lower than for other contact crimes such as violence against the person (44 per cent).
• In 2011-12 9,900 defendants were proceeded against in court. Of those cases about 30 per cent were for rapes. Of all offences that completed to the point of guilty or acquittal at the magistrates’ court or Crown Court just under two thirds were convicted.
• In 2011 the 2,900 defendants prosecuted for rape were prosecuted, on average, for 2.3 rape offences each.