Sexual assault: Will long-overdue justice finally be delivered for victims?

Credit: PA

Rebuilding your life after a serious sexual assault isn’t easy. 

Victims are often plagued with questions. Why did it happen to me? Should I tell my family or friends? But the most pressing question is often this: should I report it?

On one side is the desire to get justice, or even prevent someone else from being assaulted.

On the other, the fear that the demands of the legal process - a medical examination for evidence, a bruising cross-examination in court - might worsen the trauma of the assault itself.

The decision on whether or not to report should always be a victim’s alone.

But what no one should have to take into account is just how heavily the scales of justice are weighted against them.

It’s true that rape has never been an easy crime to prosecute. There are rarely any witnesses or CCTV and those involved are often known to each other.

Cases regularly pit two very different accounts of what happened against each other.

Ten years ago that meant that only one on in ten alleged victims reporting rape or sexual assault would see their case result in a conviction.

But if those odds sound bad, look at what’s happened since. Over the past decade successful prosecutions have become such a rarity that in 2019/20 just 2.6% of all police recorded rapes ended in a conviction.

So what’s going wrong? Many victims, who are mostly but not exclusively women, simply drop out of the process.

That’s not surprising when you consider that as of January this year the backlog in crown court cases stood at over 56,000.

Waits of over 2 years for a case to get to court, with all the stress and anxiety that brings, are not uncommon.

But many cases don’t even reach the court - nationally only around 3% of investigations result in charges.

At Avon and Somerset Police, where the rate is among the worst in the country, they’ve been trying to do something about that.

In an unquestionably brave move, the force passed on all of its data around three years worth of rape investigations to a team of academics. The aim: to try to work out what was going wrong.

They found some serious shortcomings, highly unlikely to be limited to just one force.At the heart if it all, one simple fact.When it comes to the decision on whether to not to proceed with a case, there was far too much emphasis on the victim’s credibility and far too little on the suspect’s past and behaviour patterns.

In some cases, the force had failed to pick up that previous complaints had been made about the alleged perpetrator, with similar modus operandi’s described in each report.

The pilot project threw up a number of recommendations including speeding up police investigations, keeping victims engaged and training police officers.

Much progress has been made in supporting victims more closely, progress that’s spreading in other forces too.

Even if someone chooses not to press charges, simply reporting a rape opens the door to those specialist support services and can offer up important information that may help with progressing other ongoing investigations. 

But the pilot, called Operation Bluestone, kept coming back to one point. 

The police and justice system will only serve those reporting a rape or sexual assault if there is a dramatic shift in focus. To tighten its grip on offenders, the system has to pivot to concentrate much more closely on them.

That can include the small things. Rather than detectives asking a victim how much they had drunk, for example, question instead why a suspect would believe any one could consent after buying them eight drinks. 

Because victim-led justice means nothing until its the perpetrators accountability, rather than the victims’ credibility, that is kept front and centre throughout.

If the government's long awaited Rape Review can begin to deliver that change, then justice too might finally start delivering.

The Victims’ Commissioner for England for Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC, described the “seismic collapse in rape charging and prosecutions” as a “serious and long-running crisis”.

“While the government’s ‘Action Plan’ undoubtedly has serious limitations, we have to seize this moment if we are to escape this crisis on our justice system,” she said in a statement.

“I truly hope this review will help drive us forwards and I will be pushing ministers all the way to deliver justice for victims of rape and sexual assault.”

Amelia Handy, Policy Lead for Rape Crisis England & Wales, said that there are “are individual elements of the report that are encouraging” but that it is “hard to identify any big commitments that will radically and swiftly improve the experience of the justice system for victims and survivors”.

“When we became concerned about the lack of meaningful engagement with us as stakeholders - and crucially with victims and survivors themselves - we went so far as to produce our own in-depth ‘shadow rape review’, detailing numerous recommendations for improving the failing criminal justice system,” she added.

“To our disappointment, very few of these recommendations have been taken up by the government.

“This is a missed opportunity to create the fundamental changes required to make the system fit for purpose.”