Last week, the government published the Rape Review Progress report, which sets out updates on the work which they have carried out in the last two years since the Rape Review was published.
The Rape Review was a seminal piece of work which explored the driving factors behind the decline in rape prosecutions to record low levels. The government carried out the Rape Review following calls from campaigners and third sector organisations who provide support to victims of rape.
As we look at the work being carried out, it is important to remember that the driving force behind this work was an acknowledgement that the criminal justice system was fundamentally failing victims of rape, the response to reports of rape was inconsistent and that drastic improvements were needed to make the system fit for purpose.
Two years on, it is encouraging to see the government report that they have made substantial progress on their Action Plan. In particular, I welcome the announcement that the Operation Soteria National Operating Model is being rolled out across all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
It is vital that police forces and the NPCC work together to ensure a consistency of practice across England and Wales, victims and survivors must have confidence that they will receive a high-quality response, regardless of the location, and that they know exactly what to expect from the response they receive.
The early findings from the implementation of Operation Soteria across the pilot sites show encouraging results, with increased charge and prosecution rates. The framework which underpins Operation Soteria has improved how the police and the Crown Prosecution Service work together to investigate cases effectively and charge perpetrators in a timely manner.
Operation Soteria has provided much-needed data on the link between domestic abuse and rape, with the Year 1 Report finding that a third of rapes were domestic abuse-related, as were around one in ten other sexual offences.
For far too long, domestic abuse and rape have been dealt with in a silo by the criminal justice system. The findings in Soteria make clear that this cannot continue. The two are often inextricably linked and require police officers and prosecutors to have a broad understanding of coercive control and how that can impact a victim’s ability to consent to sexual activity within the context of an abusive relationship. With that in mind, I hope that these findings will encourage forces to consider how their units can be best designed to respond to these cases.
Seeing programmes such as Operation Soteria deliver such promising results in the pilot phases shows the impact which dedicated funding can have on the criminal justice system.
New initiatives are only as strong as the resourcing which is allocated to them. I was disappointed to hear that the government will not be committing any dedicated funding for police forces to implement the National Operating Model in their own areas. Without additional funding, many forces may struggle to implement the National Operating Model in its best form, taking us back to square one: a justice system with inconsistent responses to victims and survivors who report rape.
The government cannot set such a strong initiative up to fail. It must adequately resource the operationalisation of the Soteria roll out in order to ensure victims do not continue to be let down.
The government’s Progress Report outlines improvements to case outcomes – from referrals, to charging, to prosecutions. However, the data is far from a cause for celebration. In 2022, only 7% (5,288 of 61,169) of recorded rapes were referred to the CPS by the police, meaning that the overwhelming majority of victims will never see their case progressing beyond them reporting it to the police. This is deeply concerning when you consider that this consequently means that most perpetrators of rape will never come close to being brought to justice.
I am further concerned with how the data in the Progress Report was presented in the report, with the improvements being presented based on the last quarter, rather than being compared to last years’ statistics or the data in the one-year progress report.
Moreover, despite the government setting its outcome targets against a 2016 baseline, the Progress Report only compared the latest statistics with the 2019 data. The opacity of this reporting is not conducive to the government meeting its own ambitions nor does it paint a sufficiently clear picture of the progress being made.
Accountability is a crucial lever of meaningful change and greater transparency is needed in order to ensure that effective oversight of the performance of criminal justice agencies can take place.
Wider work needed
Though the programme of work set out in the Rape Review will undoubtedly help to improve the criminal justice response to rape, further actions are needed to ensure that victims and survivors receive the support which they need when they report these offences, as well as to improve their confidence in the system.
Currently, victims and survivors of rape are deterred from reporting their experiences or seeking counselling due to concerns that their therapy notes will be compelled by the police, the CPS or the defence in a case, with the Progress Report finding that this took place in 29% of cases. There is nothing to prevent this from occurring, leaving victims in a difficult position whereby they have to choose between seeking support to heal from their trauma, or face the prospect of their private disclosures being weaponised to discredit them.
Whilst I recognise that the government has brought forward proposals to ensure that third-party disclosure of materials requests are necessary and proportionate, I do not consider that they go far enough in providing victims with the protections they need. Rather, I support the calls by the Centre for Women’s Justice, Imkaan, End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) and Rape Crisis England & Wales for an amendment to be made to the Victims and Prisoners Bill for the threshold at which therapy notes can be compelled to be raised and require a judge to decide whether a disclosure should be made.
Similarly, I am concerned about the lack of safeguards surrounding the extraction of information from victims’ phones. As part of the Rape Review, a commitment was made to improve digital forensic capability to ensure that all victims whose phones were compelled for data extraction as part of an investigation would have their mobiles returned to them within 24 hours. Whilst I welcome this ambitious 24-hour return target, this cannot be implemented at the expense of victims’ privacy.
Unfortunately, many victims are reporting that all of their phone data is being extracted by policing in order for them to meet this target. The mass extraction of personal data is extremely intrusive and I am not yet confident that adequate measures have been put into place to prevent data which is not relevant or pertinent to the case from being extracted.
The government’s commitment of £21 million over 2023/2024 for the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Fund is extremely welcome and will certainly help to drive capacity for much-needed support services. Research conducted as part of my office’s Patchwork of Provision report found that there was a postcode lottery for victims and survivors who sought services.
Further, many services reported that they struggled to maintain service levels due to instabilities in the funding which was available to them. In order for services to truly thrive, they must have access to long-term sustainable funding which enables them to provide consistent services to all victims and survivors.
As part of the Victims and Prisoners Bill, I am calling for the creation of a statutory duty for the provision of community-based services, to ensure that all victims and survivors can obtain the support they need, regardless of where they may live.
Whilst it is important to recognise how far we have come over the past two years, we must not lose sight of how much more there is to do. We must continue to be driven by the ambition that all victims and survivors who report these offences must receive robust criminal justice responses and have access to wrap-around support and I will continue working with key partners to ensure that this is achieved.
I have been pleased to work with the National Police Chiefs Council and the CPS on their Joint Justice Plan for domestic abuse, which I hope will set out ambitious targets for improving how the criminal justice system responds to domestic abuse and look forward to sitting on the oversight group for its implementation.