No access to justice for rape survivors
Marc Bloomfield
On 18 June 2021, the government published The end-to-end rape review report on findings and actions (CP 437). The introduction to the report, which was two years in the making, includes apologies from Robert Buckland QC MP and other senior ministers, along with the promise to ‘drive urgency and focus’ (page ii). However, its pledges lack particularity and for those of us working with victims and survivors of sexual violence, it is very much a case of too little too late.
The report fails on almost every level to take seriously both the scale of the epidemic of male violence being visited upon women every day in the UK and the systemic flaws within the criminal justice system. Funding cuts across the criminal justice system have led to cuts in specialist units dealing with victims of rapes, inadequate investigations, fewer cases leading to charge and long delays for cases reaching trial. Currently, fewer than one in 60 of the more than 52,000 rape cases reported to the police in England and Wales each year are charged, a rate of 1.6 per cent.1Caelainn Barr and Alexandra Topping, ‘Fewer than one in 60 rape cases lead to charge in England and Wales’, Guardian, 23 May 2021. Locate that number within the context that only one in six are reported in the first place2Sexual offences in England and Wales overview: year ending March 2020, Office for National Statistics, 18 March 2021. and we have a clear, profound lack of access to justice.
Frustrated with progress on the review and a lack of engagement both with us as expert stakeholders and, most shamefully, with survivors themselves, Rape Crisis England & Wales worked with partners Imkaan, the Centre for Women’s Justice and the End Violence Against Women Coalition to publish our own ‘shadow rape review’ in November 2020. The decriminalisation of rape: why the justice system is failing rape survivors and what needs to change recommends a series of actions, including ensuring access to specialist staff at all levels within the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and trauma-informed advocacy and support services. It also details an important concept that the government’s own rape review ignored completely: that a failure of prosecutions, the lack of investigations that lead to charges and the reluctance of survivors to report are not the root of the problem, but indicative symptoms of a system that is failing. Failing in part because the criminal justice system has been defunded and stripped apart at all levels – police, courts, the CPS and legal aid. Failing in part because other government departments and commissioners – for example, health and education – don’t prioritise specialist, holistic services for rape survivors as part of their responsibility or remit. But failing mostly because our society and systems are underpinned by a pervasive culture of misogyny and victim-blaming rape myths.
There is an urgent and radical need for change in the justice system and in our entire societal acceptance of violence against women and girls. The rape review, published just days after the damning Ofsted Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges (10 June 2021), was the perfect opportunity for the government to show that it intends to address it. Rape justice is not merely an issue of criminal justice; there is parallel social justice that must be achieved for victims and survivors. This is the perfect example of what we should mean when we talk about holistic practice in access to justice, with legal advice and recourse cutting across areas of law and being delivered along with wider, trauma-informed services, and with strategic and systemic change – genuine social change – being an objective that the different parts of the system work to achieve. We need to end rape, and increasing prosecutions is just one part of achieving that.
The actions and the absolute lack of funding articulated in the government’s rape review do not even begin to touch on that. While there are some welcome developments – for example, the pledge to move to suspect-focused investigations – there is no tangible evidence of the promised drive and urgency. It is as inadequate as it is insulting to women.
Rape has been decriminalised and substantial work is needed both inside and outside of the criminal justice system to resolve that. Until that starts, we continue to be failed.
1     Caelainn Barr and Alexandra Topping, ‘Fewer than one in 60 rape cases lead to charge in England and Wales’, Guardian, 23 May 2021. »
2     Sexual offences in England and Wales overview: year ending March 2020, Office for National Statistics, 18 March 2021. »

About the author(s)

Jayne Butler is CEO of Rape Crisis England & Wales, the National Membership Organisation for Rape Crisis Centres.