A misleading focus on the proportion of rape cases that result in conviction has left victims’ needs neglected and stopped women coming forward, the author of a landmark government review said.
The independent report by Baroness Stern was commissioned by the government last year in response to ongoing concerns over the level of rape cases resulting in convictions. But in an interview with the Guardian, Stern said that while they remained important, the conviction rate was “not the be all and end all”.
Stern suggested the figure of 14% – the estimated proportion of reported rapes that end in a conviction for that crime or another related offence – was “not dramatically low” compared to other crimes. Of the cases that get to court, 58% result in a conviction. Stern said that figure was a sign that the system was “working very hard” and was never going to be considerably higher under the current legal system.
“We have probably put so much emphasis on the criminal justice process … that the actual needs of the human being who’s suffered this appalling violation come second,” she said. “What I’ve tried to suggest is that they should at least be equal.” Better victim care would help improve the conviction rate because fewer people would drop out of the process, she added.
But some campaigners said that the recommendation effectively let the criminal justice system off the hook, when women were still receiving “shocking” treatment. “What she’s proposing is to cover up what’s happening in the criminal justice system just at the time when women are finally getting the truth out,” said Ruth Hall of Women Against Rape.
The government should continue highlighting the low proportion of reported rapes that end in a successful prosecution, despite a review’s claim that focusing on the 6% rate was detrimental to victims, the solicitor general, Vera Baird, said today.
Baroness Stern’s independent report into how rape complaints are handled called for politicians and campaigners to stop quoting the 6% figure. Stern said the way it had been used was “extremely unhelpful” and misleading, because it suggested there was little chance of attackers being found guilty in court. The fact that 58% of cases that reached court resulted in a successful prosecution was more relevant, Stern said.
Campaigners accused her of missing the point that many rape complaints never get to court, often because of problems with the police and prosecution system. Baird said she too thought the reports-to-convictions rate remained important.
“I do have reservations about ceasing to refer to the widely used 6% figure, which reflects the percentage of reports that produce a conviction,” she said. “Although we don’t count any other offence in this way, it is particularly meaningful as it reflects the high number of rape victims who drop out before they get to court. We really need to focus on that group, as Baroness Stern herself says.”