Rape charges: The reasons why a case wouldn't go to court

Magistrates court Ipswich Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Magistrates Court in Ipswich - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the low prosecutions of rape cases, we've spoken to a former criminal lawyer on how cases end up being taken to court. 

Currently, less than 3% of more than 55,000 rapes reported to police in 2019/2020 resulted in a prosecution. In Suffolk, the figure was 2%. 

Concerns have been raised about this low conviction rate when women already have concerns about their safety.  

Stephen Colman is a University of Suffolk lecturer, course leader for the law programme and a non-practising solicitor.

Stephen Colman is a University of Suffolk lecturer, course leader for the law programme and a non-practising solicitor. - Credit: Stephen Colman

Stephen Colman, who was a senior crown prosecutor for more than 12 years working in Suffolk crown and magistrates courts, said one reason for this is that the defendant often has a relationship with the victim.

Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone, according to Office of National Statistics 2019 figures.

According to the Rape Crisis network, only one in 10 of rapes are committed by strangers. The rest are committed by someone the survivor knows – such as a friend, neighbour, colleague, partner, or family member.

Mr Colman, who is now a senior lecturer at the University of Suffolk, said: "In all cases, crown court prosecutors have to consider two tests - one evidential and the other the public interest.

"Cases will move to the public interest case if the evidential stage is passed.

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"The prosecutor reviews the evidence and there has to be a realistic prospect of conviction. 

"It would be very strange to go to court if there was only a tiny chance of succeeding.

"And you wouldn't want to put someone through the ordeal of a trial if there was not going to be a meaningful outcome."

The Crown Prosecution Service's (CPS) policy for bringing charges of rape was recently dubbed unlawful by women's groups in a recent Court of Appeal case. 

However, the court dismissed all claims made against the CPS on March 15. 

After the verdict, Andrea Simon, director of End Violence Against Women, 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."

In response to the judgement, director of public prosecutions Max Hill said“Rape, in particular, is an abhorrent crime and one of the most complex to prosecute.

"The impact on victims is shattering and lasting, and it has long been recognised that all parts of the criminal justice system must give real and ongoing focus to the issue.

"Every victim must feel able to come forward with confidence that their complaint will be fully investigated and, where the evidence supports, charged and prosecuted."

Mr Colman steered clear of making remarks on this case,  but did say it was "very rare" that the CPS wouldn't proceed if sufficient evidence is there.

"They're so serious and the culpability is so high that it would go ahead," he said.

This is because serious sexual offences would always meet the public interest test, he claims. 

The public interest test is met if the offence is serious, the person is culpable, meaning they were involved in the crime, the circumstances of the defendant, how old they are, usually, and if they caused harm.

However, the nature of many sexual offences mean it can be one person's word against another's. 

Mr Colman said: "There is no rule against you not prosecuting in a case where you just have one person's word. 

"Domestic abuse often happens in private where there are no other witnesses to what happened. 

"But if you can find supporting evidence, it does make a complainant's evidence stronger."

He also said the policy of not having those who have been through serious trauma, like rape or sexual assault in the court, has become uncommonly challenged by the defence - "as it would reflect badly on the defendant and look like victimisation."

He  said it was routine in a lot of cases, not just rape and sexual offences, for mobile phones to be taken and used as evidence. 

"But they would often be unused material which does not form the prosecution's evidence in a case."

You can speak to someone about Rape Crisis support here rapecrisis.org.uk.

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