In 1980, one in three complaints of rape ended in a conviction. Today, it's one in 20. In Gloucestershire, which was named the worst-performing county last year, how did it get so low?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Rapists are escaping justice, many people are convinced.
The number of convictions has risen a little, to 728 in 2005, but this has not kept up with the soaring rate of reported rapes.
A report published on Wednesday accuses police and prosecutors of failing to build strong cases, and the government is considering further reforms to make the justice system more sensitive to the needs of victims.
In Gloucestershire the problem is most acute. In Home Office figures published by the Fawcett Society, the county was bottom in England with a rape conviction rate of 0.86% of reported allegations. This compared with nearly 14% in Northamptonshire.
Of the 116 people accused in 2004, only one was convicted during that year. But Gloucestershire police point out that 10 of these investigations were ongoing and resulted in convictions the following year.
About 80% of rapes never reported
One-third those reported not recorded by police
A fifth of those recorded reaches trial
Half those tried result in conviction
For the women told their evidence does not stand up - or that they are lying - the experience can be as traumatic as the rape itself, says Bee, who has worked at Rape Crisis Centre in Gloucester for more than 20 years.
"Young women these days are quite sassy and have more of an idea that these things shouldn't happen to them.
"The sad thing is that the whole system lets them down. They go to court confident that they're going to get this guy and the system can't come up with the goods. Then suddenly we're not dealing with the rape but the refusal of the system to give them justice."
She believes the police in Gloucestershire have been trying hard to improve the situation by introducing measures to make rape easier to report, such as special interview suites.
Ironically, the increase in complaints may have contributed to the fall in proportion of convictions. But there are deep-seated problems in the criminal justice system which mean people are getting away it, Bee says.
She would like more judges and prosecutors to be specially trained in sexual crimes, and expert witnesses to give evidence to explain the behaviour of complainants, which is something the government says it is considering.
"The response of victims is the very thing that stops the cases from getting convictions, such as they didn't go to the police straightaway, they couldn't remember what happened.
"They have gaps in their memory and say contradictory things. They remember things later. There's no little women sobbing in court. They're detached."
Bee would also like the public, including juries and police, to be better educated about how widespread rape is and how "normal" rapists can appear to be.
RECENT RAPE REFORMS
Complainants can give pre-recorded
Definition of consent has changed
Defendant's bad character can be used
Defendants cannot cross-examine complainants
£7m on new referral centres
Though some who are critical of the police accuse them of taking frivolous cases too seriously, the Gloucestershire force say they work closely with the CPS throughout investigations. Every allegation is investigated by sexual offence trained investigators working to national standards, says a spokeswoman, who adds that the fall in convictions may be down to changes in the way statistics are compiled.
And there has been real progress in bringing sexual offenders to justice, says Adrian Foster, chief Crown prosecutor for Gloucestershire, with a conviction rate of 75% for all sexual offences in the county's courts in 2006.
Some commentators believe the increase in alcohol consumption among women in the past 20 years has made it harder for juries to believe victims did not consent. And a rise in accusations made against acquaintances has increased the focus on consent, which is difficult to assess.
Binging raises personal safety issues
Dr Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, says police and prosecutors' attitudes towards victims need to be more sensitive.
More fundamentally, the public debate about rape has to move away from presenting violence against women as acceptable, and victims of rape as blamed or disbelieved, she says.
Among the many women too afraid to go to police, many do contact charities like Rape Crisis Centre. Bee estimates they deal with nine times as many cases as the police.
There is hope on the way for rape victims in Gloucestershire. A Sexual Assault Referral Centre is due to open in Gloucester in 2008 and this "one-stop" location for victims will enable them to report a rape without pressing charges or giving their name. Then they can think about the consequences of legal action while the police collect evidence.
Bee believes it will make little difference unless public attitudes change. "I can tell you that [this centre] might get us up to the average of 5% and that's still nothing."
Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.
To say that the conviction rate needs to be raised is tantamount to pre-judging the verdict. British law has always been based on fair trials. Whatever happened to innocent until proved guilty?
The substantial increase in complainants and charges would show much of the prejudice in making a complaint has gone. The lack of convictions could be due to either a lack of evidence, less public sympathy and the possibility no crime was committed.
Why does the fact that the woman has been drinking make her "unreliable" and "asking for it", whereas men who have been drinking are still apparently able to decide that although she said "no" she didn't really mean "stop". What a woman wears and the fact she has had a drink should never be taken to mean she always wants sex.
Karen, New Malden
I was involved in a high profile rape case where a photographer I visited 'tried' to rape me. I did not report this as I felt in some way to blame as I felt that I should have not have put myself in the situation in the first place. This of course (unfortunately) is a common feeling amongst people who have found themselves in a similar situation. I was watching the news one day and discovered that this so called photographer was facing up to 60 similar charges, some of which were actual rape, I then felt that it was my duty to speak up. I will not lie and say that the process was easy because it was not and I did on more than one occasion want to stop the proceedings but even though I had to give intimate details and be cross examined in crown court and made to feel that somehow I was the 'bad person' I am glad that I saw it through. He was later charged and sentenced to 6 years imprisonment.
Two people in a room. No video or sound recording. They have sex. After the event one says there was no consent, the other says there was. Both agree the sex involve scratches being inflicted, one says because they were both very active participants, the other says rape. What other evidence is there apart from the statements of the two there? How is anyone, police, court, or complaints watchdog, to ascertain exactly what happened?
It is really unbelievable that the government, press and all the human rights organisations are clamouring so loudly for higher conviction rate. Should you not be clamouring for justice to be upheld what ever it is, be it be true or a fabricated allegations. The logical assumption of very low rate of convictions is that many of the complaints are found to be baseless. So are you all suggesting that you should somehow pervert the justice and convict more of the defendants irrespective of whether the court believes they are guilty or innocent?
Sudhir Reddy, Dundee
I was raped when I was 15 and still a virgin. I knew my attacker but because my dad was a policeman and his view at the time was I "had been to a party and was wearing a short skirt - was asking for it!" I was only 15 and had only had one glass of wine. Have been in counselling only recently.
Please, why can people not accept the fact that if you drink so much that your memory is impaired you cannot make a reliable witness?
Geoff Winkless, Leicestershire, UK
The law should side with the innocent party, be it the person who was raped OR the accused if no offence occurred. With the number of miscarriages of justice its no wonder convictions are low as sending an innocent person to jail is the last thing anyone wants.
Having sat in on a case like this, to me it was very his word against her word. How can a jury decide if that's enough evidence to convict someone?
Does it not occur to any one involved in this that false allegations do happen? As with all things, each case needs to be addressed in its own right, and problems inherent in that should be addressed. Making "targets" for conviction, however, is just absurd: there will be more pressure to convict regardless of the facts of the case, and more people's lives ruined by the false allegations thrown at them.
Part of the problem is the fact that so many women are falsely accusing men of rape nowadays. A woman gets drunk and gives consent, yet in the morning can accuse the male of rape. Add to that cases of women accusing celebrities of rape, yet the first port of call is Max Clifford, then the local police station, doesn't stand to reason. A judge and jury have to take these in to account before establishing 'beyond reasonable doubt'.
Surely a prosecution which finds someone wrongly accused of rape not guilty is as successful as finding someone rightly accused of rape guilty...
Dan , Bristol
I was raped in December 2005 and I never reported it to the police. Mostly because I knew it wouldn't be taken seriously. I live with the guilt of thinking that my attacker - who was known to me - might do it again to someone else and I could have prevented it. If I'd had more faith in our legal system I'd have gone to the police. But because I was drinking that night, I knew I'd be the one put under the spotlight, not my attacker.
One of the things that has changed since 1980 is that women now feel more confident in reporting a genuine rape, but unfortunately, the one thing that is often forgotten is that these women will probably be very traumatised by their experience. They are told not to shower or clean themselves before going to the police, but often it is the first thing they want to do to comfort themselves. They are told to go to the police immediately, but they are left in a daze or live in fear that their attacker may return and so delay going to the police until they are confident enough. It doesn't make their case any easier to defend, but even if they cannot bring their case to court, they need assistance and understanding from the police.
A friend of mine was raped at Victoria Coach station (in London) by a stranger in 2001. When, after much persuasion, she went to the police to report the crime they told her that there was no point in taking it any further. They said they would not be able to locate the man, even if there were CCTV evidence available, and that in any case only 8% of reported rapes ended in a conviction. They basically told her she should get on with life rather than trying to catch the rapist and then go through the trauma of a trial. When the police give this kind of advice, it's not wonder that so few rapes end in conviction.
I was accused of rape in the UK. I was arrested, humiliated, I had intimate samples taken, I was told these would remain on file whatever the outcome. The next day the young lady (whom I had never had any intimate relations with) retracted her story. I still had to remain on police bail for many months, losing my resident status over here in the USA, until the forensics, which took 5 months (!!) came back negative. The girl meanwhile had been sectioned at the behest of the police themselves, in a mental hospital as a delusional schizophrenic. The officer who questioned me later admitted that of the cases she investigated, 80% were either girls getting drunk and regretting having sex the next day, or girls afraid of facing up to their pregnancies and using 'rape' as an excuse for outcome of casual sex. It took me many months and thousands of dollars to regain my status here, whilst I spent two years in the UK jobless, sometimes homeless, and often friendless.
Doug, Northville USA
I agree that justice should be upheld. However, rape is an extremely difficult case to prove. He says one things, she says another. Often she will be the one who is villified for being raped. We put the blame on the rape victims themselves. She was drinking too much, she was wearing a short skirt/low top, she just regretted it in the morning. I feel that's just terrible. It's easier for a man to stand there and lie about raping a woman than it is for women to go to the police. And rape is not an easy thing. The brain blocks the memory to protect itself. You know it happened, but not the details. The end result is that there are very few convictions - and because women know how rape cases go, that makes them even LESS inclined to report. We need to stop blaming and start piecing these poor people together.