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Rape victims fear not being believed

Many rape victims are not reporting their sexual abuse as a crime due to a fear of not being believed.

However, this is perhaps unsurprising given that reports to police about rape have increased hugely in the past few years but the CPS prosecute fewer of them and police are now referring fewer on to them for charge.

The Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird stated that in 2019/20:

  • There were 55,000 reports of rape to the police, but only 1,867 cases charged.
  • Just 1.4% of reported cases were charged.
  • The proportion of victims who withdrew their support for their case steadily increased from 25% in 2015/16 to 41% in 2019/20.
  • Rape convictions were the lowest on record.

The Victims’ Commissioner sought views from almost 500 survivors of rape about their experience of the criminal justice system.

“Twenty-nine per cent of our sample had not reported the incident to the police and the most important reason for non-reporting emerged as ‘didn’t think I would be believed’, which 95% of this group considered important in their decision-making,” said the report.

“The importance of feeling believed was an overarching theme across this research, and survivors often gave a sense that their credibility was being tested by representatives of the system,” the report added.

Survivors also anticipated that they would not receive procedural justice or success in court, so they pre-emptively took the decision to opt out of the process.

“Among those who chose to put the offence on record only (for reasons such as protecting future survivors) and those who actively withdrew from the process, there was a sense of fearing being disbelieved or judged, as well as anticipatory concerns about the low chances of success. There were also more personal reasons for not supporting the process, such as wanting to get on with their lives and fear of the impact on their mental health,” the report added.

The second most frequent reason for not reporting was the belief that the case would not be investigated or prosecuted successfully ‘because of my gender, sexuality or lifestyle’ (88% of non-reporters).

Early in 2019, the government launched an End-to-End Review of how the criminal justice system deals with rape. While much work has been done, the Review team took the “surprising decision” to seek very little direct input at all from rape survivors, explained Dame Vera Baird. “My view as Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales is that it is imperative that the victim’s voice is heard. Consequently, our own researchers took on the task of asking rape survivors for their experiences of the criminal justice system.”

The subsequent report by the Victims’ Commissioner ‘Rape survivors and the criminal justice system’ found that 48% of survivors who reported felt they were treated with sensitivity, fairness and respect by police at the reporting stage. There were many accounts of officers who treated survivors sensitively and made them feel believed, comfortable and supported.

Yet there were also many accounts to the contrary of officers who were insensitive and made the survivor feel disbelieved, judged and at fault. Some felt their experience was minimised or that police discouraged them from progressing their complaint.

Survivors’ accounts of the criminal justice system is often heavily influenced by the communication they receive during the investigation. The report states that 57% said they were kept informed about all the actions police took, however, 82% agreed with the statement that there were long periods when they heard nothing, and 70% agreed that they, or their representative, had to chase for information and updates.

Just one third of survivors agreed that the police clearly explained why any request to access mobile phone and other personal data were necessary, and requests for these data were often considered invasive and intrusive, and survivors had serious concerns about this.

Survivors whose cases resulted in ‘No Further Action’ felt they did not receive a clear explanation. While just over two thirds of the survivors whose complaints were concluded as ‘no further action’ by police recalled being given a reason, only a third felt they were told this clearly and promptly. The decision felt devastating to many survivors and some used language implying re-traumatisation by the system. For example, one wrote of feeling, ‘broken, disgusted and traumatised’.

The report found that there was higher recall of being given a reason for not prosecuting by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) compared to the police. But the rape survivors who had subsequent interactions with the CPS tended to find these insensitive and the effect on survivors was often devastating.

The benefit of the role of the Independent Sexual Violence Advisers was made clear in the report and their involvement impacted on the number of women who withdrew support. While 10% of those who received help from either an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA) or other support service chose to take no further action or withdraw support, this compared to 20% of those who did not have this support.

The experience of court had a major impact on survivors. More than three quarters agreed with the prompted statement that the cross examination was traumatising and the vast majority strongly agreed. There was a low level of agreement with positive statements around communication such as information provision, explanation of case outcome.

Respondents in the report were asked about their level of agreement on a number of statements about their experience of the criminal justice system.

  • Just 5% strongly agreed that survivors could obtain justice by reporting to the police.
  • A further 9% agreed (not strongly) with that statement.
  • Agreement that the police, CPS and courts were fully supportive of survivors was also low.
  • The only statement that achieved more widespread agreement was that survivors of rape and sexual offences are fully supported by victims’ services, at 45%.

However, those reporting more recently tended to be more likely to agree that survivors are fully supported by the police, the courts, the CPS and victims’ services.

“Overall, we conclude that survivors want to be treated sensitively, fairly, respectfully, and to be believed. They also want criminal justice system professionals to better understand trauma and provide clear and timely information. They need to be offered the best possible access to ISVAs and support services,” the report concluded.

Dame Vera Baird said: “When launching the government’s Victims Strategy in 2018, the previous Prime Minister emphasised that the trauma of being a victim of crime:

'Must never be compounded by an individual’s experience of the criminal justice system.’

‘All victims of crime have a right to know that the state is on their side.’

“On this evidence, these laudable intentions have not begun to be realised for rape survivors. To them the criminal justice system is bound to fail and, worse still, to do so in a way that re-victimises them.

“If survivors of this deeply damaging and highly prevalent crime are to feel that ‘the state is on their side’, the government’s End-to-End Rape Review must produce radical cultural transformation across the criminal justice system,” she concluded.

Rape survivors and the criminal justice system

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