The Law Is Clear – Sex Without Consent Is Rape. So Why Is Justice Increasingly Out Of Reach?

"The CPS seems to be investing more energy into putting victims’ rights at risk rather than root and branch reform of the criminal justice system," writes Amnesty International's Chiara Capraro.

A woman who was conceived by rape has spoken out publicly about her experience. ‘Vicky’ was adopted in the 1970s at seven months old. She later found out that her birth-mother was 13 when she was raped by her birth-father – a family friend in his 30s.

Now, ‘Vicky’ is campaigning for a DNA test to prove the crime in the hope that it will lead to a conviction of her birth-father. But the police are saying that the law doesn’t recognise her as a victim.

This chilling story is just one of many that show how survivors of sexual violence have to struggle for justice – often to no avail.

Reading headlines on rape cases in England from the past year, it’s hard not to feel like justice is a pipe dream for survivors. Last year’s Crown Prosecution Service’s annual report showed a 23% drop in prosecutions for rape. And last week, new analysis of the latest crime statistics revealed that just 1.5% of all rape cases leads to a suspect being charged or summoned. That’s one in 65 cases.

The figures are even more worrying in the context of the rising number of victims coming forward to report – in the last four years, the number of rape claims dealt with annually by police in England and Wales rose by 61%, from 35,847 to 57,882.

Last week’s report from the London Mayor’s office for crime and policing adds to the bleak picture. The report is the most detailed analysis of reported rape in the capital so far: it looked at 501 allegations of rape reported to the police in London in April 2016, analysing the reasons for rape attrition – the difference between the number of cases reported and the number of cases that end up in prosecution and conviction.

Only 9% of reported cases were submitted to the CPS for a charging decision by the police, 6% went to trial and a meagre 3% resulted in a conviction. On average, this process, from reporting to conviction, took 18 months. This bleak picture seems really hard to shift, despite the UK being one of only 9 countries in Europe with a human-rights compliant legislation on rape – based on consent rather than force or coercion.

Around a third of the cases reported in London were classified for no further action by the police. Almost 60% of the cases were dropped because the victim withdrew. This is not because victims make light hearted allegations – a hard-to-die myth even though false allegations of rape are only 0.62% of prosecuted cases – but because the justice system is a source of further trauma rather than healing.

In May, Bonny Turner waived her right to anonymity to expose that her case was dropped because the police found she had downloaded a dating app a couple of weeks after reporting being raped by a man she knew. That same phone carried the proof of the man admitting to having raped her in a Facebook message. However, the authorities dropped the case due to an ‘unrealistic prospect of conviction’. This scrutiny of a victim’s character is the same myth-based argument as the ‘she’s wearing a lacy thong’ case which is used time and time again to discredit women.

Big Brother Watch has exposed how victims are routinely asked to hand over their mobile phones to the police if they want their case to go forward. The technology might be new but the patriarchal stereotypes are the same age old ones.

There is a huge amount of work to do in the UK to change attitudes and ensure public opinion on rape catches up with the law as a EU wide survey has found over 1 in 10 people in the UK think being drunk or on drugs may be an excuse for sexual violence. Rape is not about sex, it’s about power.

UK rape law is based on consent: if consent is not given, it’s rape. It also requires consent to be ascertained. It is extremely concerning that despite such clear basis for legislation once a rape is reported what seems to be under scrutiny is a complainant’s character. Consent laws have the power to effect normative change, educate about consent culture and prevent rape in the long-term. But as the case of the UK shows, laws alone will not eradicate rape nor ensure access to justice for survivors. They need to be accompanied by appropriate, continuous training, including on rape myths and preconceptions to police officers, prosecutors and lawyers, relationships and sexuality education, victim support and safeguards that minimise secondary trauma.

Criminal justice is also not the perfect nor the only avenue of healing the trauma of rape and we must remember that it is in fact not available or accessible to many victims: victims who are undocumented or highly stigmatised, such as sex workers, face even more barriers. Proper support is also hard to access: last year 6,355 victims were waiting to access support from Rape Crisis Centres but the waiting lists for counselling ranged from 3 to 14 months. In London, this week’s report exposes how almost a third of victims who had an online referral were not able to access specialised support due to lack of available services.

Justice in sexual violence cases is never straightforward. Like in ‘Vicky’s’ case – rape can have an impact throughout the generations. More and more survivors and activists are clear and vocal that sex without consent is rape and are breaking the silence about their experiences.

Worryingly, the CPS seems to be investing more energy into putting victims’ rights at risk rather than root and branch reform of the criminal justice system. The UK justice system isn’t fit to deal with rape cases. It needs to be victim-led. It needs to catch up.

Chiara Capraro is Amnesty’s Women Human Rights Programme Manager.

Before You Go