Britain apologises for failing rape victims

Messages of support and flowers are left in memory of Sarah Everard, who was raped and killed by a police officer, in London, on March 17, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON (AFP) - The British government on Friday (June 18) apologised for failing rape victims, acknowledging that swingeing cuts to the legal system in recent years contributed to plunging conviction rates.

"The first thing I need to say is sorry," said Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, as a review into the handling of rape allegations was published, calling for root-and-branch reform.

"It's not good enough. We've got to do a lot better," he told the BBC in an interview.

The long-awaited government review urges prosecuting authorities to focus more on the behaviour of the suspect rather than the accuser.

According to the Crown Prosecution Service, which brings criminal cases in England and Wales, 1,439 suspects were convicted of rape or lesser offences in 2020 - the lowest levels since records began.

In 2019, there were 1,925 convictions, despite reports of adult rape to police having almost doubled in the period 2015/2016, when there were 4,643 prosecutions.

Between 2015/2016 and 2019/2020, the number of reported rape cases that ended in a suspect being charged fell from 13 per cent to 3 per cent.

Some 128,000 people a year are victims of rape and attempted rape, but only 1.6 per cent of reported cases results in a charge, the figures stated.

Justice Buckland, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Attorney-General Michael Ellis wrote in the report: "These are trends of which we are deeply ashamed.

'Long overdue'

"Victims of rape are being failed. Thousands of victims have gone without justice."

Justice Buckland told the BBC that public service funding cuts, including to the CPS, were to blame, and promised the government was looking to make "the necessary investment".

It would also tackle a culture that campaigners argue focuses more on the alleged victim than the perpetrator.

The review proposes increasing the number of cases referred by police to the CPS for consideration of prosecution, and charges to 2016 levels by 2024.

It recommends reducing the cross-examination of victims in court by conducting pre-recorded interviews and using only evidence about the complainant that is relevant to the case.

"Early and robust assessment of suspect behaviour and offending patterns" should also be implemented, it added.

The Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales, Ms Vera Baird, called the government's apology a "milestone" that would force it to act.

But the former senior lawyer said the review overall was "underwhelming", did not go far enough and would be of little comfort to those who have seen their complaints dropped.

In particular, she called for changes to how the police handle alleged victims' mobile phone data, given complaints investigators were routinely conducting "fishing expeditions", or searching victims' phone data for information on their behaviour.

The charity Rape Crisis England and Wales said the recommendations were "long overdue" to tackle a "genuine crisis", and called for the reforms to be implemented immediately.

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