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Police handling of rape cases 'inconsistent,' says watchdog

Controversial charging reforms and huge workloads are among factors limiting rape investigations, according to watchdogs.

Deep problems in the criminal justice system are leading rape victims being failed, official watchdogs have warned.

A joint HMICFRS and HMCPSI investigation has noted a number of recurrent problems in the police and CPS’ management of rape cases, concluding that “rape victims are continually and systemically failed by the criminal justice system”. 

It found disparity between cases with a range of standards, communication and case management by forces. 

The review acknowledged that for police and prosecutors alike workloads are high and often unmanageable. 

In an accompanying report, based on surveys and interviews with victims, almost all participants said their confidence in the police and CPS had decreased as a result of their experience and the majority said they would not report a rape again. 

The two reports, released today, form the second part of the investigation into the prosecution of rape cases and double down on calls for better communication between frontline prosecutors and investigators along with improved victim services and communication. 

The investigation also heard that the Charging (The Director’s Guidance)- Sixth Edition had added to workloads by requiring investigators to give unused material over to the CPS pre-charge. 

For this second phase, the inspection focussed on the post-charge process and looked at 54 files across the police and CPS from five forces and six CPS Areas, as well as carrying out interviews and focus groups. Independent researchers also completed surveys and interviews with victims. 

Disclosure errors, failure to consider the use of bad character for evidence as well as failures to apply for protective civil orders for victims were all named as recurrent problems. 

On average it took 218 days of investigation before the police sent a case to the CPS for a charging decision and there were 706 days between the report of an offence and the start of a trial. 

One case took 16 years to reach court due to “an apparent lack of evidence”, despite the presence of DNA at the scene.

Police-recorded rape offences increased from 54,711 in 2017/18 to 58,492 in 2018/19 before decreasing to 52,207 by 2020/21. 

Of the offences recorded in 2020/21, 4,340 were referred to the CPS by the police, 3,144 resulted in charges and there were 1,109 successful prosecutions. 

Police responsibilities within RASSO cases include keeping victims up-to-date with relevant information pre-charge. Under the Victims’ Code, police also have a duty to inform victims within one working day what a suspect has been charged with, details of the first hearing and bail conditions. 

In two thirds of the cases reviewed, the initial Victims’ Code contract was recorded and agreed with the victim. The report saw however that it was often as the police investigation continued and more people became involved that communication became disjointed and inconsistent, with some forces having no specific guidance to limit contact. 

After the charge decision, however, police still have a duty to continue recording, retaining and reviewing material collected during the investigation. 

It was found that some forces would close the case on police systems once a charging decision had been made, meaning related demands on an investigator’s time are not recorded and cases may not be supervised. 

While the investigation found positive examples of communication between police and victims, communication could be inconsistent and in certain cases was not recorded. 

Overall, communication was found to deteriorate as cases progressed, with post-charge cases receiving less attention, and communication became non-existant once the case was concluded. 

In a minority of cases, officers were negative, insensitive or inappropriate towards victims when they made their initial report. 

Both phases of the investigation found that victims overall were dissatisfied with the amount, type and timeliness of communication with the police. 

The accompanying report by Opinion Research Services, who conducted 11 interviews with victims, found that : “perceptions of information, support, and safeguarding from police were largely negative.” 

Factors which contributed to this perception included a lack of police contact post-charge, inadequate handover to the witness care unit and a failure to protect participants from harassment and intimidation by the suspects. 

This report consolidated the original investigation’s finding that police work was inconsistent, with some respondents reporting sensitive and sympathetic communication from the police service, while others were incorrectly informed of the outcome of their case, or not told at all. Most participants were not contacted by the CPS or the police after the conclusion of their case. 

One participant told the investigation: “To be perfectly honest, the reason I said yes and wanted to speak to somebody was that I wanted to make the point that the court system sucks, and I wanted to … stand up for the police for they get constantly battered, and it seems to me that out of the entire system, they’re the ones trying to effect a change … I think particularly women police officers have done an enormous amount to change the way the police operate.” 

It was also found that in spite of the provision of section 28 training packages by the College of Policing, training was not consistent between forces and very few investigators had used section 28 for adult victims, most RASSO investigators said they did fully know how or when it should be used. 

Nine recommendations were made moving forward, including police and prosecutors reviewing and significantly improving communication with victims post-charge. The report also suggested that the Home Office and Ministerial Lead for Rape and Serious Sexual Offences should consult widely on the benefits of a commissioner with an explicit responsibility for tackling RASSO. 

Operation Soteria and Project Bluestone, designed to improve the investigation and response process in RASSO cases, were both commended within the Phase two report. 

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Inspectorate Andrew Cayley CMG QC said: “We looked at the process from start to end, directly following the victim’s experience.

"The results are unacceptable. The number of cases which result in a charge and proceed to court represents only a small proportion of the total cases reported to the police. Victims should not have to wait years for a court date, experience multiple adjournments, and then report, as we have heard, that the process is worse than the offence.” 

The response

National Police Chiefs' Council Lead for Adult Sex Offences, Chief Constable Sarah Crew, said: "We are committed to transforming the police approach to rape and serious sexual offences and ensuring that victims get the service, support and outcomes they deserve throughout the criminal justice process.

"We recognise there is still much to do, and work is well underway to improve the policing response, including through the Soteria Bluestone programme. This is a unique and innovative collaboration between police and leading academics to develop a new evidence-based and transformational approach to the investigation of rape.

"We welcome the recognition in the report of the progress the programme has made so far. The learning phase is well underway in pathfinder forces, with insights from these being shared across policing. Insights from this programme are also being shared with the Crown Prosecution Service and we are reviewing our joint National Action Plan, which provides the framework for the joint improvement around cases of rape and serious sexual offences, based on this learning."

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