Downing Street is planning a controversial intervention to reverse the record decline in rape prosecutions by imposing targets on police and prosecutors, the Guardian has learned.
In a highly unusual move, the prime minister’s crime and justice taskforce is planning to set targets for police to refer more high-quality rape cases to the Crown Prosecution Service and for the CPS to prosecute and bring more rape cases to trial.
It paves the way for a row with the CPS, which is likely to oppose the change for impinging on its independence. The service has in the past set its own targets for different crimes, but this is understood to be the first time it would be subject to a government-imposed target for rape prosecutions.
The cross-government crime and justice taskforce, led by Boris Johnson, is set to call for the service to prosecute a greater volume and proportion of rape cases year on year. It is expected to announce the targets later this year.
The move follows steep annual declines in the number of cases referred by police to the CPS and the number and proportion of rape cases prosecuted. Less than two weeks ago, rape prosecutions were revealed to have fallen to their lowest level since records began, 2,102 prosecutions – a 59% decline since 2016-17 – and 1,439 convictions in England and Wales in 2019-20. Meanwhile, reports of rape increased by a third to 55,130. Referrals from police to the CPS have fallen 40% since 2016-17.
Fewer rape cases have been passed from police to prosecutors, but the fall in the number of rape cases prosecuted by the CPS has been even more marked. The average time for a report of rape to be charged is 395 days, the longest of any crime type.
Amid growing anger over the trajectory of rape prosecutions, the government is carrying out an end-to-end review of the crime, which is expected to report this year.
Rape cases referred by police to the CPS fell to 2,747 in 2019-20
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Guardian graphic. Source: Crown Prosecution Service
The attorney general’s office, the CPS and the police did not respond directly to questions about proposed targets. A government spokesperson said: “We are determined to restore faith in the justice system and give victims of rape the confidence that everything will be done to bring offenders to justice … We will continue to work with the police to look at ways to improve their role in the investigation and prosecution of rape, and ensure that their guidance and best practice is implemented in every police force area.”
The CPS had internal targets between 2016 and 2018, referred to as “levels of ambition”, to achieve 60% conviction rates. However the targets were dropped when the CPS found they were “not appropriate” and may have acted as a “perverse incentive” by deterring the prosecution of less straightforward cases.
Katie Russell, the national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England and Wales, said the move was a clear acknowledgment that the criminal justice system was failing on rape, but urged caution.
“Targets can be a blunt tool for dealing with a systemic problem,” she said. “Crucially, they cannot on their own successfully achieve the real cultural shift that is needed for victims and survivors to have a reasonable expectation of both criminal and social justice in future.” Other measures should be prioritised including training, education of the public and sustainably funded support for survivors, Russell added.
The latest intervention comes ahead of a legal challenge over whether the CPS has changed its practice in prosecuting rape.
There were 1,867 charges in rape cases in 2019-20 – half as many as five years ago
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Guardian graphic. Source: Crown Prosecution Service
A landmark decision last week granted a women’s group the right to a judicial review into whether there has been a change in CPS decision-making following training seminars on the prosecution of rape cases.
In 2018, the Guardian revealed that rape prosecutors in England and Wales had been advised in training seminars to put a “touch on the tiller” and take a proportion of “weak cases out of the system” because such a move – while resulting in fewer prosecutions – would boost the conviction rate.
Conviction rates are at an all-time high, at 68.5%, while prosecutions have tumbled to their lowest levels on record. The CPS has consistently denied any change in approach.
Sarah Green, the director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, also raised concerns about the proposed targets. “We need a deep study of courtroom experiences for victims, lawyer conduct in court and how judges preside over and intervene in rape trials before we assign all responsibility and change to the police and CPS,” she said. “The fact that rape myths are deployed in court is what leads to conservative decision-making earlier in the process.”
Sarah Crew, the most senior police officer for rape in England and Wales, said: “Police remain committed to the cross-government review of how the criminal justice system handles rape. That review is still ongoing and is yet to report its findings … Outcomes for victims of rape are not good enough and all of the criminal justice system will use the review’s findings to improve.”
A government spokesperson said it had announced an extra £85m funding for the CPS over two years in August 2019, while from this year until 2022 £4m per year would be made available to recruit more independent sexual violence advisers across the country, as well as a 50% increase in funding to rape support services through the national rape and sexual abuse support fund.