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28 July 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:00am

The rape gap: why are convictions plummeting as reports rise?

Last year, only 3 per cent of rape complaints ended with the suspect charged. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

“He got away with all of it.”

When Gail* finally reported her sexually abusive husband to the police three years ago, after two and half decades of a violent relationship, nothing came of it. He was originally arrested and released on bail without charge, and eventually allowed to walk free. No trial, no guilty verdict.

“I don’t have any faith anymore,” she says. She is still fighting in the family courts to restrict her former husband’s access to their two sons.

“It seems that nothing is being done – sexual assault and domestic abuse are not being investigated or dealt with in the way they ought to, so women are not even going to call the police, they’re just going to keep putting up with it.”

Gail, 55, was subjected to nightly rape and sexual abuse, as well as a psychological control and manipulation.

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“When I reported him, all he said [to investigators] was, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” she tells me. “And they didn’t do anything about it, because he’s presumed innocent. I felt like I had to have something [evidence] really solid, or be half dead… It’s so messed up, and it’s so wrong.”

When she took this up with the police officers who dealt with her case, Gail says they told her they would “rather let a thousand guilty men go free than one innocent person punished. I said, in that event, it’s imprisoning hundreds of thousands of innocent people, because women and children are affected by these men.”

Unfortunately, Gail’s experience is not unusual. In 2019, only 3 per cent of rape complaints ended with a suspect being charged – a figure that is expected to drop even lower this year.

The fall has been swift, with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecuting half as many cases in 2019 as they were two years previously: in the year ending March 2017, the CPS prosecuted 3,671 cases, compared with the year ending March 2019, prosecuting just 1,758 cases (a 52 per cent drop).


Convictions fell by 36% between 2016 and 2019

Rape prosecution outcomes 2014-2019


Source: CPS


Decisions to charge people for rape have fallen in recent years

Decisions to charge rape 2014-2019


Source: CPS


Graphs by Michael Goodier

Police referrals of rape cases to the Crown Prosecution Service have also fallen in this time, by 22.6 per cent.

The police have been referring fewer cases to the CPS

Pre-charge rape cases recieved from the police 2014-2019


Source: CPS

Despite these trends, the number of rapes reported to police has more than doubled since 2014.

The number of rapes reported to police has risen

Police recorded crimes of rape of an over-16 year old 2014-2019


Source: Home Office

This amounts to the “de-criminalisation of rape”, according to the Victims’ Commissioner Vera Baird, in her annual report released on 14 July. “In some cases,” she warns, “we are enabling persistent predatory sex offenders to go on to reoffend in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be held to account.”

Police forces are working with state prosecutors on a joint action plan to try to improve the situation by attempting to build stronger cases earlier on and speed up their passage to court, as well as exploring models for specialist training in cases of rape and serious sexual offences.

While both the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and CPS acknowledge concerns about the numbers and the need to improve, there are no answers forthcoming as to what is behind the collapse in convictions.

There are theories as to why the gap exists. In her annual report, Baird accuses an unnamed senior CPS figure of advising rape prosecutors to avoid “weak” cases in order to improve the service’s conviction rate. A coalition of women’s groups, End Violence Against Women (EVAW), accuses the CPS of having “changed its policy and practice on rape”. The CPS denies these allegations, and in March the High Court ruled that EVAW could not bring a full judicial review against the CPS regarding the issue.

Last March, the government announced an “end-to-end” review of how rape and sexual violence cases are handled by police and prosecutors throughout the process, in order to work out why the numbers were dropping so drastically. Yet more than a year since this promise, no answers are in sight.

“We are nowhere near to completing the review and making recommendations for change,” reveals Baird, herself a member of the review, in her report. 

“Everyone with a role to play in investigating and prosecuting rape knows there is more to do to bring more cases before the courts,” says Sarah Crew, a deputy chief constable and the NPCC’s lead for rape and adult sexual offences.

“It is essential we work out why we are not referring more cases to the CPS and why charges and convictions are falling, and collectively make real and lasting improvements across the whole criminal justice system.”

She says the government’s “end-to-end” review will help do this, and that the NPCC is involved in the process, but gives no suggestion of when its findings will be published.

See also: Anoosh Chakelian and Michael Goodier on the domestic abuse victims trapped by lockdown

As well as rape and sexual assault, police have been sending fewer and fewer domestic abuse cases to the CPS, which has been prosecuting a smaller number and winning fewer convictions since 2016, as the New Statesman reported in May.

Although rape reports have increased, many victims of rape and sexual abuse are still reluctant to come forward – fearing judgement, disbelief or lack of support by the system. Plummeting referrals, charges and convictions could exacerbate this problem.

Intrusion into victims’ privacy is under particular scrutiny.

“Complainants can end up feeling that they are having to submit to being investigated themselves before they can be considered to qualify for the chance of a prosecution,” writes Baird in her report.

“This is because many will be required to hand over their mobile phones so that the data can be downloaded to see if it has any bearing on a possible criminal prosecution.”

This can result in complainants feeling under pressure to give away unnecessary personal details, or even dropping out of otherwise “strong” cases, according to Baird.

“I was investigated like I was the criminal,” says Gail. “I had everything turned over in my life when I had called the police… I was questioned so many times, my medical records were taken, my Facebook and Instagram was looked at, everything about these things was questioned. My phone was taken – his wasn’t.”

She describes the process as “really unfair” and “relentless”: “I felt violated all the way down the line… All while having to talk about all the most horrible things that I found very, very hard to articulate anyway.”

In June an investigation into mobile phone data extraction by police forces in England and Wales by the Information Commissioner’s Office found police in some areas of the country extracting and storing “excessive amounts of personal data… without an appropriate basis in existing data protection law”.

In an inspection last December, the CPS watchdog reported that one of the biggest challenges facing the police and the CPS is “to ensure that the enquiries are proportionate, so that complainants are not subjected to any more intrusion than is necessary in the circumstances of their particular case”.

Balancing digital disclosure with the right to privacy is an ongoing challenge for investigators and prosecutors.

“We should also be mindful of the huge increases in the amount of digital material that needs to be analysed by investigators and prosecutors, which is extending the length and complexity of investigations,” says the NPCC’s Sarah Crew. “We are supporting police and prosecutors to help them better manage disclosure and analysis of digital material, including looking at how technology can help us.”

A CPS spokesperson comments: “We share the concerns about the gap between reported rapes and those cases which come to court. We know these abhorrent crimes can have a devastating impact on victims and are some of the most challenging cases the CPS faces. Our specialist prosecutors are highly trained to make sure criminals can be brought to justice, whenever the legal test is met.

“Working with police, we are focused on understanding the reasons for the charging gap and are pleased to see the beginning of a reversal of this trend in the past year. However, we know there is much more to be done to drive up confidence in the justice system and will announce further plans shortly.”

Sarah Crew, the NPCC’s lead for rape and adult sexual offences, adds: “Rape cases are some of the most complex crimes that the Criminal Justice System deals with. We’ve worked hard to increase victims’ confidence to report, reflected in the substantial increase in reporting nationally. Behind the headline conviction figures, we are working with other agencies to safeguard victims and protect the public from dangerous perpetrators…

“In parallel to the Criminal Justice Review, we are engaging with victim advocates, support groups and services to understand new trends, system challenges and what deters people from reporting or continuing to support an investigation after reporting. We hope that through this work, we can continue to improve outcomes, build confidence in the criminal justice system, and have the best support in place to help victims cope and recover.”

*Name and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity

See also: Sian Norris on the problems with the move to ask rape victims to share phone data 

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