Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics released last week (18th November 2021) showed that for the 12 months ending June 2021, there were increases in prosecutions at magistrates courts as well as increases in convictions for sexual offending compared with the previous year.
While we welcome improvements in access to justice for survivors, these figures appear to be largely attributable to the justice system’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused a system shutdown over several months of 2020 and substantial delays in survivors’ cases.
In contrast with 2020, we would expect to see increases across the board in 2021, with much of the country gradually reopening as lockdowns eased. In order to see a more accurate picture of the state of prosecutions and convictions for sexual offences, these figures must instead be compared with the level of prosecutions and convictions in 2016.
The pandemic arrived at a time when the justice system had already collapsed and rape had been effectively decriminalised, with survivors facing a 1 in 60 chance of seeing charges brought against perpetrators. This was followed by a year with the lowest number of rape convictions on record.
The government has committed to addressing this crisis by targeting prosecutors with returning to 2016 levels of charging in rape cases. In 2016, these levels were seen as inadequate, but plummeting levels of rape prosecution in recent years mean they are shockingly now considered a level of ambition.
These new figures therefore can’t be taken on face value, instead showing just how far there is left to go to see improvements in survivors’ access to justice.
MoJ figures for 2021
The MoJ data shows that the number of defendants proceeded against at magistrates courts for sexual offences has increased to 9,361 in 2021 from 7,076 in 2020. This is a notable increase, but it’s important to compare this with 2016 levels of 13,144.
It is also important to note that magistrates court proceedings relate only to summary or ‘either way’ offences. These will typically be so called “lower level offending”, i.e. offences such as sexual assault, exposure, voyeurism, taking and possessing indecent images of children and outraging public decency, rather than rape.
The data also shows that the average custodial sentence length for sexual offences fell by 3.9 months across the year, to 55.9 months in 2021. For comparison, in 2016 the average custodial length was 61.5 months.
5,197 offenders were found guilty of sexual offences in all courts in 2021, an increase from 4,391 in 2020. However, it is important to compare this figure with the number found guilty in 2016 (7,251).
In 2021, convictions for sexual offences increased to 18,707, up from 16,524 in 2020. But for comparison, this figure was 25,127 in 2016.
The conviction ratio in sexual offences has decreased from 62.1% in 2020 to 55.9% this year. For comparison, this ratio was 55.2% in 2016. This recent decrease may be because the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are bringing a wider range of cases to court.
In recent years, we’ve seen an already risk averse institution take an extreme approach. We know that certain areas have cited a 100% conviction rate for rape cases, meaning that they are only taking forward cases where they are extremely confident a guilty verdict will be reached – in effect acting as judge and jury themselves, undermining the purpose of our courts. This ‘ratio’ measurement is one we consider closely alongside other data on volumes of cases.
Rebecca Hitchen, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), says:
“It is to be expected that we would see increased prosecutions for sexual offences as justice systems recover from the impacts of the pandemic. This data feels incomplete however as it focuses on defendants whose cases are heard at magistrates level, which is typically where so called “lower level” sexual offences end up.
In addition, while these prosecutions have increased, they cannot be seen as a success, given they fall well below the level of prosecution we saw in 2016 – which the government and CPS have set as target for prosecuting sexual offences. In this context, we see declining numbers across the board.
When compared to just 5 years ago, what we actually see are decreases in sentence lengths, in convictions and in the number of offenders found guilty. This is a stark reminder of the fact that the system is broken at every level.”
Sinead Geoghegan, Communications Manager
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