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Women are complicated and so is rape.

Penelope Gibbs
16 Mar 2021

Sexual offences are very complicated. Most happen behind closed doors involving two adults and no other witnesses. The two adults’ perceptions of what happened may differ. If things go very wrong, it is often one person’s word against another. Our adversarial criminal justice system is profoundly unsuited to dealing with such messy situations. The stakes are very high for the alleged offender, who faces not just a long prison sentence, but a lifelong criminal record and ostracization from society. No wonder lawyers agree that no stone should be left unturned for both prosecution and defence. Unfortunately that often means examining mobile phone data, which can take up to a year.

In many sexual assault and rape cases the victim knows the person accused of the offence – they may be part of the same group of friends and/or have dated. So its not surprising that so many women choose not to co-operate with the criminal justice system, even after reporting a crime. This week Labour and some campaigners have called for longer sentences for stalkers and rapists (“some of the sentences handed out for these appalling crimes are a disgrace. Let’s make sure the time fits the crime”) and for “action to bring rapists to justice… to fast track rape and serious sexual assault cases through the courts”, since rape convictions are so low.

There are indeed very low numbers of rape prosecutions compared to reports, but its not clear that the greatest barrier to prosecutions lies with police and courts . Yes the system is too slow, and rape and serious assault cases should be prioritised; yes rape complainants should be allowed to be cross-examined on video prior to trial. But even this cross-examination can’t take place until the defence have had full disclosure and this often includes phones being analysed. So its not clear quite how much fast tracking can be done.

And I think many women would walk away from the court process anyway, because they think they will be better off doing so. Some report rape without ever wanting it prosecuted. The Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed-Powys noted a very high rate of victims withdrawing from the criminal justice process and commissioned research into what was going on. (38% of rape complainants and 28% of complainants of other sexual offences withdrew from the process). The complexity of victims’ reactions is shown by the results. There were high rates of satisfaction with the service the police provided, but that satisfaction was higher among victims who withdrew from the process. Rape and serious sexual offence complainants were asked why they had withdrawn. In roughly half the cases the complainants withdrew because they did not want police contact (“has either refused to give a statement, video interview or does not want to go to court/support prosecution”), in a quarter of cases complainants withdrew to preserve their mental health (“victim does not want investigation to start/ go any further as it is impacting their mental health”), and in 15% of cases the complainants did not perceive themselves to be a victim of crime (“Only wants the crime reporting/ wants words of advice given”). Finally in 9% of cases the crime had been reported by someone else, rather than the victim, who presumably did not want it reported.

None of this means that the police and the courts could not respond better to serious sexual violence and that, by doing so, they may prompt fewer women to withdraw from the criminal justice process. But many victims clearly walk away despite, not because of, police action.