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Is the UK's justice system failing rape victims?

As the Hollywood-precipitated #metoo movement reverberates across society, the prevalence of sexual abuse toward women in the UK has never been more under the spotlight. Sarah Bradbury reports.

While Equality Now's 2017 report suggests rape "is a largely-ignored global epidemic," reports of the offence are particularly high in the UK. According to a 2017 Eurostat report, of nearly 80,000 rapes recorded in the EU in 2015, 35,800 rapes were recorded in England and Wales, while Germany and France reported 7,000 and 13,000 respectively. Furthermore the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show reported incidents of rape climbing by a further 29 percent to 48,773 since 2016, an increase of 256 percent since 2007.

Arguably a rise in reports in the UK may reflect an increased willingness for victims to come forward further facilitated by concerted police efforts to improve processes of recording. But estimates from advocacy group End Violence Against Women (EVAW) suggest the reports still reflect as little as 15 percent of actual incidents. In parallel, the justice system in place to deal with these reports is facing a crisis.

EVAW Co-Director Rachel Krys blames austerity-hit resources for an already strained system being left unable to cope with the level of support needed in the form of highly-trained, specialized staff to take cases from report to conviction. Combined with fresh debate over what information should and can be disclosed as evidence in trials, and the misconception of pervasive false allegations being peddled by the media, there are concerns that hard-won progress for rape justice is now under threat.

"Cases of sexual violence centering around consent were always very hard to prosecute and took a lot of effort from the police, from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and from organizations like us," Krys told DW. "We have seen dramatic improvement over the last 10 years. We were just starting to make progress with such cases so they were prosecutable offences. We're extremely worried that what is happening now is turning back the clock."

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Harriet Wistrich, a prominent solicitor and co-founder of Center for Women's Justice, sees the key issue not as the system of laws in place as such but the "gap between law and what happens in practice." In February, Wistrich fought and won a landmark Supreme Court case on behalf of two victims of John Worboys (the black cab driver believed to be the UK's most prolific serial rapist) in which the Court upheld that the police were liable for systemic and investigative failures that allowed Worboys' offending to persist for years after the initial claims against him were made.

Furthermore, the lawyer notes inbuilt societal attitudes can have a profound effect on the judgement of police, prosecutors, jurors and even the victims themselves, particularly around consent and culpability. "Rape by its nature is something many women don't report," Wistrich says. "They might not necessarily perceive what's happened to them as rape. Or if rape takes place with a known person or on a date many women feel they must be in someway partially complicit. There's huge amount of shame around it."

And despite the CPS 2017 Violence Against Women and Girls Report showing more offenders were successfully prosecuted for sexual crimes than ever before, a stubborn attrition rate exists: of rapes reported, the number that result in conviction is 7 percent or one in 14, one of the lowest rates in Europe. "This can be due to whether or not the police fully investigate, whether the victim withdraws at some stage, whether or not the CPS decide to charge, whether or not the jury convicts at the end of that process — the fall away is huge," Wistrich explains.

Portrait of a woman

Many women feel let down both by the justice system and society as a whole

Emergency review underway

A pertinent challenge for those handling cases is the vast volumes of digital data now held about individuals on phones, laptops and online. Headlines were made earlier this year after four rape cases collapsed shortly before trial in a matter of weeks due to such digital evidence being provided to the defense at a late stage by the police. As the CPS no longer considered the cases had sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, the cases were dropped. There is now an emergency review of all rape cases and the disclosure of evidence process more generally underway, as a CPS spokesperson told DW.

"Rape and serious sexual offences can be some of the most complex cases the CPS prosecutes. We have worked hard in recent years to improve how we deal with these cases ... It is clear however from a number of recent cases that there are systemic disclosure issues across the entire criminal justice system."

But some believe this review has failed to recognize the sensitive area of how digital information pertaining to a victim's sexual history is protected. Harriet Harman MP and Dame Vera Baird QC have launched a campaign to enforce the rules which prevent a victim's sexual history evidence being used by the defense in rape trials and to ensure complainants are treated fairly in the courtroom: "We cannot allow rape trials to be inquisitions into the complainant's sex life," Baird asserts. "The fear of a complainant being confronted with evidence relating to sex with other men is, and has always been, a huge deterrent to reporting rape."

Let's talk about sex

A sign reading don't get raped (Richard Potts)

Attitudes and the approach to sexual discourse need to change in the UK

Furthermore, simplistic media coverage of the collapsed cases has led to an implication of false allegations, feeding a narrative borne out of what some see as a wider "#metoo" movement backlash, such as Katie Russell of Rape Crisis UK. "People have difficulty and are unwilling to accept the sheer volume of women who are experiencing sexual harassment and abuse. There is a sense of 'empathy fatigue.'"

Russell argues that alongside ongoing improvements to police and CPS resourcing and processes, education and dialogue within these organizations and at a wider societal level is essential to shift attitudes and stamp out rape culture for good.

"Part of the solution has to be better sex and reproductive health education," she says. "The only people talking to young men about sex are Pornhub. We need to talk about sexual interaction and what enthusiastic consent looks and feels like. If men thought that their partner's pleasure was part of sexual interaction they would probably behave quite differently. That might be a radical and new conversation and, as Brits, not one we might be very good at having, but that's where we're at."

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