The Solicitor-General Vera Baird, QC responds to claims by Women Against Rape that the Government hasn’t done enough to secure justice for rape victims
I welcome the opportunity to respond to the article by Women Against Rape published on February 11. Long before I became a Minister, I, too, was a campaigner for justice for victims of rape; now I have responsibility for the prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences.
I can say from personal experience that the Crown Prosecution Service are by no means complacent in this area and there is a real commitment to work in partnership with the police to build stronger cases that will secure more convictions.
Rape is one of the most feared and damaging crimes in our society. It is an appalling crime that devastates the lives of victims and their families. It takes enormous courage for a victim to report the crime and they deserve the best support that can be provided and to see justice done.
We as a Government are doing all we can to reduce the incidence of rape and ensure that investigations and prosecutions are conducted as effectively as possible. We are determined to take all legislative and non-legislative measures possible to improve the conviction rate.
Rape will always be a difficult offence to prosecute. According to the British Crime Survey of 2001, 54 per cent of rapists were current or former partners of the victim and only 17 per cent were strangers. With non-stranger rapes often there are no independent witnesses present and little or no forensic evidence available. Fewer than 6 per cent of rape cases reported to the police ultimately result in conviction.
Ministers have said on many occasions that we regard the conviction rates in rape cases as unacceptably low. Increasing conviction rates is vital, not only in terms of delivering justice for victims but also in terms of sending a deterrent message to potential offenders, preventing rapists committing further offences and securing the confidence of victims and the wider public in the criminal justice system.
It is not right, as Women Against Rape suggest, that there has been no progress in this area over the last few years. While it is right that the overall conviction rate has fallen since 1997 — from 9.3 per cent to 5.7 per cent — this has to be understood in the light of a significant rise in the numbers or reported rapes, which have risen from 6,628 in 1997 to 14,449 in 2005-6. This rise in reporting is to be welcomed: it demonstrates that victims are increasingly having the confidence to come forward and report rape — partly, no doubt, as a result of greater awareness of rape in society but also as a result of the way in which cases are now investigated and prosecuted.
And we are now seeing greater numbers of convictions for rape and the overall percentage figure moving in the right direction. In 2005-06, 820 convictions for rape were recorded, up from 618 in 1997. And the overall conviction rate has risen by half a percentage point since 2003-4 (from 5.2 per cent to 5.7 per cent).
The Government has already made a number of changes both to the law on rape and to how the police and CPS work together to build better cases. In particular, we have strengthened the law through the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and updated the law on bad character and hearsay evidence. This now means that more relevant evidence is considered by the jury. Those who commit sexual offences face tough sentences — the average length of sentence for rape has doubled since 1984 and we have introduced indeterminate sentences for public protection.
We have introduced Specialist Officers and specialist Rape Prosecutors across England and Wales and are introducing specialist training for police, prosecutors and barristers acting in rape cases. We have put in place new arrangements for the performance management of police forces and the CPS. The new Criminal Justice Public Service Agreement will make clear that rape should be a national and local priority. All police forces are receiving operational support to develop and deliver action plans to improve rape investigation strategies and implement recommendations from the 2007 report of the police and CPS inspectorates.
We have made a further series of changes to ensure victims are supported through the criminal justice process. We have invested around £10 million in services to support victims of sexual violence and abuse over the last four years, and look forward to continuing these initiatives in the future. We are extending the network of Sexual Assault Referral Centres, where victims receive medical care and counselling and can assist the police investigation through a forensic examination. There were five in 2001 and are currently 19. There will be at least 36 by the end of the financial year 2008-09. In addition, we are funding the piloting of independent sexual violence advisors in 38 areas to provide advocacy and support for victims and providing funding through the Victims Fund for voluntary organisations that support them.
Last November, I announced the Government’s response to the 2006 rape consultation paper that sought views in relation to four issues, aimed at improving the conviction rate through strengthening the existing legal framework, helping to reduce the barriers to effective prosecution and improving further the care for victims and witnesses. We announced that, in order to ensure that juries hear as much relevant evidence as possible, we will legislate to make victims’ complaints automatically admissible whenever they were made. Secondly, we propose to vary the legal test so that video recordings of victims’ evidence are automatically admissible and prosecutors will have a broader discretion to ask supplementary questions of the witness. This will enable prosecutors to decide how to call the best evidence in a case, taking account of the views of the victim.
Further, we are clear that justice must not be defeated by myths and stereotypes. It is desirable for juries to receive information concerning the psychological reactions of rape victims in order to dispel myths as to how they behave after incidents of rape. We will continue to explore ways to present fair and factual material in a controlled and consistent way. I am leading this work and recently chaired a meeting of experts from a variety of disciplines to look at it.
Our aims are clear. We are determined that all parts of the criminal justice system work together to ensure that the cases that come before the courts are as strong as possible — and are prosecuted as strongly as possible. Although there is some way to go, we are making real progress.