The government has today (10th July 2023) published their Rape Review Progress Update and announced that from next week, Operation Soteria – a new model for investigating rape – will be rolled out to all police forces in England and Wales, while the Crown Prosecution Service will begin implementing a new approach to rape investigations and prosecutions.
The Rape Review arose when rape prosecutions catastrophically dropped to the lowest on record, which women’s groups declared the effective decriminalisation of rape. This lack of access to justice has been compounded by the appalling treatment of victims during the justice process, as rape myths and stereotypes and discrimination on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or other characteristics impact decision making about their case at every stage of the process. Institutional victim-blaming and police practices have often left survivors feeling like the one under investigation, rather than the suspect.
Rape Review: Two years on
The government claims it has now delivered on the “vast majority” of its Action Plan and that it is “exploring every avenue to tackle the most stubborn remaining areas”. It also claims a return to 2016 levels of police referrals, and claims that charging rates are “following suit”.
However, we need to look beyond the headlines to really assess this progress. Last month, the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) and partners Rape Crisis England & Wales, Imkaan and the Centre for Women’s Justice published a shadow report to mark this two year point – outlining welcome areas of progress but calling into question the extent of the successes the government is claiming today.
The report also outlines the additional action so urgently needed, which we hope to see put into practice given the extension of the Action Plan to the end of this Parliament in December 2024.
Looking beyond the headlines, we are concerned to see that the government’s Rape Review two year progress report combines two datasets; lumping together police referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for a charging decision with requests for early advice from the CPS. These are two different processes.
There are also ongoing changes to how this data is presented, with data in this announcement based on quarterly rather than rolling year-to-date figures, hindering public monitoring and transparency.
The government has also compared data for prosecutions and convictions to the 2019 data set rather than the 2016 targets, and on this front they are still failing to meet their commitments, despite the 2016 level target being an already low bar. These issues reflect ongoing challenges with transparency around data which ultimately undermine public accountability.
Behind the data: victims’ experiences
Furthermore, an ongoing concern is that due to poor data collection practices in our justice agencies, we still don’t know which victims are experiencing progress and which are being left behind. We expect to see transparency and work to address gaps in data collection on protected characteristics, including government-funded independent research into who and who does not access the justice system, and why.
The government acknowledges the number of victims who withdraw from pursuing their cases at both the police stage and post-charge stage remains high, as well as the huge issues with court delays and the Crown Court backlog. We know victim withdrawal from prosecutions can be due to both the ongoing poor treatment of survivors throughout the justice process, and the courts backlog which has left rape survivors facing years-long waits for court dates – longer than victims of any other crime type. These waits are compounded by frequent rescheduling of trials, which causes significant distress.
Improving the justice process for rape survivors
That’s why with our partners, we are calling for the government to use the new Victim and Prisoners Bill to guarantee rape survivors free, independent legal advice throughout the justice process, and for their private therapy notes to be legally protected. This is essential when we reflect on the report’s findings from a case file review that:
- 29% contained a request for counselling or therapy notes
- 62% of the requests for third party material did not contain any limits to the intrusiveness of the request
- Of police requests for third party material where a rationale was given by police, 1/3 was focused on establishing perceived victim reliability or credibility rather than establishing the facts of the incident
Currently, survivors are often forced to choose between justice and healing, as their therapy notes may be shared with the police, prosecutors and courts. Therapy involves exploring feelings and working towards healing, rather than establishing the facts of a case. It must be a safe and confidential space for survivors to speak openly.
The report notes the government’s plans to use the Victim and Prisoners Bill to bring in legislation that puts an end to “unnecessary and intrusive third-party material requests in rape and sexual assault investigations”. But as we have previously stated, this announcement simply reinforces what’s already in law for third party materials under the Data Protection Act 2018. It does not go anywhere near far enough.
Instead, we are calling for counselling notes to be afforded greater legal protection by raising the threshold for when a survivor’s notes can be requested by the police and CPS, and requiring decisions on disclosure to be made by a Judge to ensure the victim’s privacy rights are met. Survivors deserve a much better offer to root out this harmful practice.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), Rape Crisis England & Wales and the Centre for Women’s Justice are supported by the the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), the UK Council for Psychotherapy, the National Counselling Society, and the British Psychological Society, in calling for the new Victims and Prisoners Bill to keep survivors’s counselling notes confidential.
Operation Soteria is one of the most promising outcomes of the government’s End-to-End Rape Review, and and it is positive to see some encouraging shifts in justice outcomes in Soteria pilot areas.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) and partners Rape Crisis England & Wales, Imkaan and the Centre for Women’s Justice have long welcomed Operation Soteria’s aims to shift rape investigations away from an undue focus on the perceived credibility of the victim, and instead focus on the actions of the suspect.
Much hope lies in the successful implementation of the new National Operating Model for investigating rape. This is long term, systemic work which must be matched by long term commitment, leadership and resourcing.
The next stage of this work will see a Joint Home Office and National Police Chiefs’ Council Unit established to drive and monitor progress across England and Wales, with support from Strategic Academic Advisors, and a HMICFRS thematic inspection on forces’ implementation of the model.
However, we’re concerned that future academic involvement in the project is limited in scope and not the comprehensive support needed to help police forces embed these changes in investigatory practices. The findings of Operation Soteria have already shown that police officers lack specialism, experience and expertise on rape and other serious sexual offences (RASSO), all of which detracts from their ability to implement this well without ongoing support. That’s why with our partners, we have called for this crucial work to be delivered with adequate funding and ongoing independent academic oversight at this pivotal time.
Wider need for culture change in policing
We’re clear that work to improve rape prosecutions cannot take place in a vacuum, and must be accompanied by meaningful action to transform policing cultures in which institutional misogyny, racism and other forms of discrimination are not only blocking justice but actively harming survivors.
It is the prevailing culture within policing that is both enabling officers to abuse their power to perpetrate abuse, and to do so with impunity. Police abuse of power for sexual purposes is now the biggest form of corruption dealt with by the police complaints body, and countless investigations and high profile cases have blown the lid off the lack of meaningful consequences for officer misconduct.
Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), said:
“While we have seen some progress, the government have been too quick to claim that they’ve tangibly changed the justice system for rape survivors. We’re barely off the starting blocks, but we now have a roadmap which is going to need a lot of support to realise its ambitions.
It still remains the case that the vast majority of rape survivors don’t report to the police, and the majority who do will leave the system altogether due to the barriers to justice they find themselves up against.
This latest data on the number of police requests for survivors’ counselling notes highlights the extent to which a focus on victim credibility remains central to rape investigations, and why we can’t rely on the National Operating Model alone to transform survivors’ experiences.
We need to ensure the new Victims and Prisoners Bill delivers stronger protections, including guaranteeing survivors independent legal advice to challenge poor practice and decision making, and a model of protection for survivors’ counselling notes in which a Judge considers and authorises these requests.
We are also concerned that despite repeated calls to address inequalities in access to justice, we are light-years away from even understanding who is engaging with the justice system, who is not, and why. The government must urgently commission research into this area and work to address the data collection gap.
Ultimately, given that the majority of survivors do not report to the police, we need to make sure action to address sexual violence looks beyond the criminal justice system and prioritises prevention work with young people in schools and through wider public information campaigns.”
Notes to editor
- Spokespeople are available for interview
- We are unable to provide case studies for interview
Sinead Geoghegan, Communications Manager, email@example.com 07960 744 502