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Today (10th July 2023), the Government has released its two-year progress report and has realised several of its commitments as outlined in the Rape Review. One significant commitment and success was establishing the 24/7 Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Line, run by Rape Crisis England & Wales.
The figures published today, including the number of cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service by police and the number of cases charged, show notable improvements and indicate that progress is being made. It is crucial now to build on good practice where it clearly being developed.
Although it is important for us to recognise this progress, it must be measured. In the Rape Review, the Government set its own target for the volume of cases referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service, charged and reaching court, to return to 2016 levels. We must remember that the criminal justice system's response to rape in 2016 was not considered adequate, let alone aspirational, and they have still not achieved what they set out to do. Whilst the data is moving slowly in the right direction, we constantly see how the processes and outcomes for the large majority of victims and survivors remain wholly unacceptable.
Amelia Handy, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Rape Crisis England & Wales, says:
“Policing and prosecuting have just begun moving in the right direction, and whilst it is right to acknowledge progress, the rights of those subjected to sexual violence and abuse remain a technicality rather than a reality in the large majority of cases.
While increasing charge rates is imperative, the Courts must be able to deal with the increased numbers of rape and sexual offence cases competently. We must have proper engagement on the record-high numbers of rape survivors waiting for trial. We have so far had no engagement with officials on this dangerous issue.
There are opportunities right now that will tangibly improve the experiences of women and girls subjected to rape and sexual abuse, which include special protections for therapeutic material, access to independent legal advice, and funding for specialist sexual violence and abuse services. These rights need to be enshrined in law.
We will continue to advocate for all victims and survivors – for those who report, and for the large majority who do not. We will continue to call for increased funding for Rape Crisis Centres that are seeing record numbers of survivors trying to access their life-changing services.”
This week also sees the rollout of Operation Soteria’s national operating model – a new way for police to investigate rape and sexual offence cases. This large research project was a cornerstone of the Government’s Rape Review commitments, which saw independent academics look at the quality of investigations and the structural and cultural aspects of police forces that affected investigations. Unsurprisingly, the academics found that police were not investigating perpetrators and instead focusing their investigations on trying to find information that would undermine victims and survivors and question their credibility. Where there has been both the dedicated leadership and the appropriate time to embed, the model of working derived from Soteria has proven to work effectively.
There must now be rigorous monitoring and scrutiny of how the national operating model is implemented so that this unique opportunity to transform policing can properly take effect. As stated in our recent report 'The Rape Review - Two Years On', written with other women’s organisations, we call on the Government once again to ensure that funds are in place for academic rigour and for independent input to be maintained throughout the model's implementation.
With the gradual increases in cases being investigated properly, and rightly taken forward by the CPS, the Crown Courts must be fit for purpose. Whilst the overall backlog in the Crown Courts has reduced fractionally, the backlog for rape and sexual offences has increased to reach a record high. This was conspicuously absent in the Governments’ progress report, although we note the commitment to employing more judges. We must also see more solutions to the shortages of barristers.
Shockingly, the number of adult rape cases in the backlog from the first quarter of 2020 to 2023, has tripled. Our Breaking Point report, released in March this year, shows that the number of cases that are rescheduled multiple times is increasing, and many cases are taking years to go to trial. This is causing extreme distress to victims and survivors who are waiting in limbo. To deal with special circumstances of record rape and sexual offences in the backlog, we call for pilots of judge-only trials in particular areas where there are the highest backlogs.
The current progress on improving survivors’ experiences of the Crown Courts has been woefully slow. The Ministry of Justice and the independent judiciary must engage with us to address this dangerous and chronic problem.
The Rape Review in 2021 stated that the Victims' Bill (now the Victims and Prisoners Bill) would be the legislative vehicle to ensure that survivors’ rights were enshrined in law, and stated that independent legal advice should form a part of it. This must be adopted as a national scheme to ensure survivors have their rights upheld.
We also note with interest that the progress report cites a case file review looking at requests for third-party material (for example, GP records, social care records, counselling notes). This case file review shows that far-reaching and intrusive requests are still happening. According to the progress report, 62% of the requests for third-party material did not contain any limits to the intrusiveness of the request. Almost a third of requests contained a request for deeply personal and private counselling or therapy notes that are rarely ever relevant to a case, as counselling is about exploring feelings and not facts. The requests for this material, which is so often used against victims and survivors, means that they are put off receiving therapy and counselling – often at a time when they need it the most. This is why we are campaigning to Keep Counselling Confidential and calling for a higher legal threshold for requesting counselling and therapy notes, to protect victims' and survivors’ rights to get the support they need.