Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger
A legal challenge against the Crown Prosecution Service's (CPS) handling of rape prosecutions, as the numbers of cases going to court drop to record low levels, has been dismissed by the Court of Appeal.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) argued the CPS moved away from a "merits-based approach" to deciding which cases of alleged rape and other serious sexual assault should be prosecuted, which it said has given rise to "systemic illegality".
The group claimed that, between 2016 and 2018, prosecutors became more risk-averse and shifted towards an "unlawful predictive approach when deciding whether to charge" alleged sexual offences.
Their lawyers said this unlawful approach has led to a "shocking and unprecedented decline in both the rate and volume of rape offences charged by the CPS".
A panel of three women in Leeds have told ITV News of the the sexual harassment they have experienced and what they feel needs to change within society.
Shiler Mahmoudi, who is a student at Leeds University, has described the past week as "really depressing".
She said: "Even before this with my friends, I would speak to them about sexual assault, I have countless messages on my phone where my friends would be like 'can you please hurry up there's a weird man talking to me' or 'can you walk with me to the bus stop because I don't feel comfortable'."
She added: "It's all just things that we already knew to be honest, but at least we're having the conversation more now."
Another student from Leeds University, Kasturi Patwardhan, said she does not think she would report a rape because of the ordeal she would have to go through.
She said: "I wouldn't, personally, I don't think I would report a rape, I think it's really hard to talk about at court, to relive all your memories - and for the man or perpetrator not be convicted."
"I think that's a lot to deal with after having something bad happen to you, I don't have much faith in the justice system, I think you can see that the police tend to be on the wrong side of a lot of movements for change, and we can see it again on Saturday when they were arresting and tackling women when they were just laying flowers."
When asked what should be changed, final year student, Maariyah Fulat said: "I think the whole culture needs to change, from the moment women are born we're taught 'don't walk outside of the house in the dark, 'carry your keys in your knuckles', 'make sure you're on the phone to someone', 'cross the road if you're worried' - women take these extra precautions and have been doing so for years now, Sarah took these precautions and it still wasn't enough.
"I think we need to have a whole culture change to get rid of this misogyny that is engrained in our culture and that starts with calling out cat calling and calling out rape jokes that your male friends make and if we start from there and then the whole culture will change and people will begin to listen to victims and take these cases seriously," she added.
In a judgment on Monday, the Court of Appeal dismissed the EVAW’s case, ruling that the CPS did not change its policy in relation to the prosecution of sexual offences.
The CPS, however, said there has been no change in policy and argued at a hearing in January that the removal of dedicated “merits-based approach” guidance “did not result in any substantial change” in charging decisions.
The Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett said in the ruling that the removal of references to the “merits-based approach” in guidance for prosecutors “was not a change of legal substance”.
The judge, sitting with Lord Justice Holroyde and Lady Justice Elisabeth Laing, said: "We do not consider that it was unlawful to decide to remove references to the merits-based approach from the Director of Public Prosecution’s legal guidance.
"Stripped of references to the merits-based approach, the remaining guidance is not unlawful."
Lord Burnett added: "We reject the submission that the decision created any risk of systemic illegality."
In a statement after the ruling, EVAW said it would have to pay about £75,000 to the CPS to cover its legal fees, unless those costs were waived.
EVAW’s director Andrea Simon said: "We are deeply disappointed at this outcome. However, we have no regrets about holding institutions accountable for the effective decriminalisation of rape.
"Thousands of rape victims continue to be let down by a broken criminal justice system.
"The Court of Appeal has given the CPS the benefit of the doubt on whether there was any change of approach to prosecution decision-making, but we still lack alternative answers to why rape prosecutions have collapsed.
"This marks another establishment betrayal of victims of violence against women and girls."
Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, which acted for EVAW, said she was "deeply disappointed" with the ruling.
She said the evidence EVAW presented as part of the challenge, which EVAW was not allowed to rely on by the court, showed that the change in "messaging" to prosecutors led to "an over-cautious approach".
Ms Wistrich added: "As a consequence, rapists that might otherwise have been convicted are walking free and there is a growing perception that rape has been decriminalised."
Who to contact if you or someone you know needs help
SARCs are specialist medical and forensic services for anyone who has been raped or sexually assaulted.
Rape crisis - This National Organisation offers support and counselling for those affected by rape and sexual abuse. Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30 & 7-9.30)
Survivors UK – Male Rape and Sexual Abuse Support - This offers a range of support options to help you recover from your experience and put the past behind you.