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The coalition can't ignore the fall in sexual and domestic violence prosecutions

A future Labour government will require police forces and the CPS to regularly publish how they perform on violence against women and girls.

The system has to change.
A woman holds a banner as she takes part in a 'slut walk' in London on September 22, 2012 to protest against the police and courts' treatment of alleged rape victims. Photograph: Getty Images.

More women are summoning the courage to walk into police stations to report sexual and domestic violence and yet prosecutions are falling sharply. Whenever I have asked the government about this disturbing trend, which has emerged over the past two years, ministers have complacently pointed to rising headline conviction rates without addressing the fact that thousands fewer cases are making it to trial at all. A future Labour government will require police forces and the CPS to regularly publish how they perform on violence against women and girls at every stage of the criminal justice system, from report to conviction.

Since 2010-11, the number of prosecutions for rape has fallen by more than 12 per cent despite a three per cent increase in the number of offences reported to the police. Prosecutions for child abuse have fallen 18 per cent over this period, while the number of offences that the CPS categorises as child abuse has drifted up six per cent. Meanwhile, domestic violence prosecutions have slumped 14 per cent, even though the Office of National Statistics maintains that incidents of domestic violence have been steady at around a million or so a year since 2008-9.

Prosecutions are falling because the police are referring fewer and fewer cases to prosecutors. In total, there were nearly 20,000 fewer cases of rape, child abuse and domestic violence referred to the CPS than in 2010-11. In rough terms, whereas it was once the case that around half of all reports of domestic and sexual violence would get referred to prosecutors =, now it’s only about a third. 

Ideally, all crimes as serious and complex as rape should go before prosecutor before a decision either to charge or to drop is made. This has been stressed in national guidance to police and prosecutors. Officially, the two agencies were supposed to be striving to co-operate more closely to build the cases that once might have been dismissed out of hand. Last month, however, it was reported that police forces were reaching local agreements with CPS about how to dispose of more of these cases earlier in order to clear backlogs of casework. As a result,  police forces are applying more of the prosecutorial tests for bringing charges themselves, while in others, prosecutors are being consulted but only to give early informal, "on the nod" assent that cases should be dropped rather than a formal examination of all the evidence available.

None of this – the collapse in referrals, the slump in prosecutions, the divergence between national standards and regional practice – can be discerned from the information that is currently made routinely public. Labour has had to compile it from parliamentary answers and freedom of information requests and disparate reports from various agencies. A future Labour government would make law enforcement agencies publish this information because the people of Cumbria have a right to know that last year their police force referred 54 per cent fewer rapes to the CPS for charges than the year before, just as the citizens of Liverpool have a right to know that CPS Merseyside Cheshire takes no further action on nearly three quarters of rape cases referred to it by the police. Publishing this data would help the public hold them to account. The former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer is also advising Labour on how it can enshrine the rights of victims into law if it wins the next election.

Last month, the High Court delivered a landmark ruling that systematic  failures by the police to investigate serious violent crime can constitute a breach of the victim’s rights under the European Convention, in particular, Article 3, freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.  The claim was brought by the victims of the serial rapist John Warboys against the Metropolitan Police who failed to investigate their allegations properly and thus failed to stop him attacking again.

This judgment shows that the system has to change. We need to have a system whereby, when a victim walks into a police station, she can be confident that she will be believed and that every effort will be made find evidence to support her in court. We must work with women brave enough to complain because the only way to stop these violent and abusive men is to prosecute them.