Prosecuting Violence against Women and Girls - improving culture, confidence and convictions
Speech by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC.
In 2007-8 the CPS prosecuted 75,000 cases involving violence against women and girls (VAWG). By 2011-12 that number was 91,000.
Over the same period the number of convictions rose from 52,000 to almost 67,000.
Proportionally this is our highest conviction rate on record for these crimes. In rape prosecutions there has been a four percentage point increase in the conviction rate in the last year alone.
All this means 15,000 more offenders are now brought to justice in a year than just four years ago.
These are the headline findings of a new analysis of our work to tackle violence against women and girls in recent years.
But before I go into more detail of these findings I want to put on record my thanks to you.
A lot has changed in recent years. We now have prosecutors who specialise in these types of crime; we have introduced training and guidance; and we have improved the way we engage with communities.
None of that would have been possible without the support of the women's organisations, prosecutors and criminal justice colleagues here this evening. Your involvement has been central to our collective success, and I hope we can continue to work together - because we all know there is more to do.
The British Crime Survey shows us that each year in the UK, over one million women suffer domestic abuse, over 300,000 women are sexually assaulted and 60,000 women are raped.
We also face a situation where fewer than one in four people who suffer abuse at the hands of their partner - and only around one in ten women who experience serious sexual assault - report it to the police.
That makes it all the more important that when such a crime is reported it is dealt with professionally, effectively and with understanding.
In the past, all too often the criminal justice system failed in this respect. But, as I have already suggested, that is changing.
This evening I want to:
- Explain the changes we have made
- Set out the improvements we have seen - both in terms of overall statistics and in handling of individual cases
- Look at what we should be doing next.
The Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy
Back in 2008 the CPS was the first government department to develop a strategy for tackling Violence Against Women and Girls - we now have a cross-government strategy to tackle VAWG, which the CPS supports through a range of actions to improve the safety of victims and bring offenders to justice.
The CPS strategy focused on domestic violence, including stalking and harassment, forced marriage, so-called honour crimes, female genital mutilation, rape and sexual offences, human trafficking for sexual exploitation, prostitution, including child prostitution, crimes against the older person, child abuse, pornography and sexual harassment at work.
It is important to note that the purpose of drawing together these types of offences, directed disproportionately towards women and girls, was to ensure that expertise and experience acquired in respect of some strands was brought to bear on others of a similar nature. The gendered patterns and dynamics involved needed to be acknowledged and understood in order to provide an appropriate and effective prosecution response. In recognising these dynamics the CPS does not neglect abuse directed towards men or perpetrated by women. Male victims receive the same access to protection and legal redress and the gender of the perpetrator does not make a difference to the CPS approach to bringing offenders to justice. All of our existing policies are gender neutral, and are applied fairly and equitably to all victims of crime and all defendants are prosecuted in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors.
A whole range of changes have been made as part of the strategy.
- Early on we developed policies and guidance on domestic violence and rape - making clear how prosecutors should deal with these cases.
- But we also recognised that these types of cases are different, and our prosecutors might need more support to deal with them. So all 3,000 of our prosecutors were trained on domestic violence, and more than 800 prosecutors have been trained as rape specialists.
- We then began to improve our understanding of a wider range of issues - we trained specialist prosecutors in honour based violence and forced marriage; we introduced training or issued guidance on key issues in prostitution and trafficking, and more recently on stalking, cybercrimes, female genital mutilation, child abuse and child sexual exploitation such as grooming and gangs.
- We established a network of coordinators whose work is crucial in ensuring that tackling violence against women and girls remains a priority for the CPS Areas, that we engage with communities on the issues and that we consistently implement our policies and guidance.
- We put a new emphasis on engaging with our communities and with you - the organisations and individuals here today who offer us so much guidance, expertise and assistance. As you will know, we work with local partners and communities through the Local Scrutiny and Involvement Panels, bringing in partners to look at our files and assist us in getting prosecutions right for victims. And we engage nationally through the Violence against Women and Girls External Consultation Group and convene National Scrutiny Panels - such as the one held earlier today to look into cases of teenage relationship abuse. This helps us to understand emerging issues of national importance that may not get picked up by local panels because the numbers within specific Areas may not be large enough for trends to be identified. Whether you are part of one of these panels, or have worked with us in another way, I'd like to thank you again.
- In the latter stages of the strategy we have focused on quality - allowing us to build on good practice, to tackle poor performance effectively and to improve consistency. Every six months I receive a report on the quality of violence against women and girls prosecutions from senior managers. This assurance process has led to better implementation of policy from the point of pre-charge advice to the police through to presenting the case at court.
- Throughout the strategy we have recognised the importance of focussing on ways to support victim engagement and trying to ensure victim safety.
So what impact has this had? The report we have published today assesses the success of the CPS strategy - which ran from 2008 to 2011 and was then incorporated into standard working practices for 2011-12, allowing us to continue to deliver the benefits.
As I have already mentioned, in this time:
- We have seen the volume of prosecutions for violence against women and girls rise from 75,000 in 2007-08 to 91,000 in 2011-12 an increase of 21%.
- And we are also prosecuting those cases more successfully - the volume of convictions rising by 29% from 52,000 to almost 67,000. That means 15,000 more offenders are now brought to justice in a year compared to just four years ago.
In the last year alone, since our new quality assurance measures were introduced, we have seen improvements in performance across England and Wales in all strands of violence against women and girls. Figures have shown a 1.5 percentage point fall in attrition in domestic violence and a 4 percentage point fall in attrition in rape. That means in 2011-12 we saw the lowest attrition rates on record, achieving a 73% conviction rate in domestic violence and 62.5% in rape.
As you may already be aware the CPS recorded data on rape prosecutions includes not only cases initially charged and flagged as rape, but also cases where a conviction was obtained for an alternative offence. The majority (88%) were prosecuted for rape or another sexual offence, with most of the remaining prosecutions being for a violent offence.
Ministry of Justice data - which reports on the ratio of those prosecuted of rape and convicted of rape - shows a six percentage point rise in the conviction rate from 34% in 2010 to 40% in 2011. This ratio does not take account of defendants prosecuted for rape but convicted at the Crown Court of another offence.
It is also interesting to look at those prosecutions that are unsuccessful, and at what stage that occurs. CPS data shows that four years ago 64% of unsuccessful rape prosecutions failed before they were presented to a jury. That figure is now less than 50%.
Another area of success is the increase in the proportion of convictions due to guilty pleas entered in these cases. Overall there has been an increase from 60% to 66%. Even in rape cases where guilty pleas have been harder to achieve we have seen an increase from 35% to 40%. This means a greater proportion of victims are spared the often distressing experience of having to go to court and face their abuser.
Whilst bringing offenders to justice is our key aim, we also recognise the importance of improving the safety of victims. Success in this area is difficult to measure, but you will hear later about some encouraging findings on this from Diana Barran from Coordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse. From their research it appears that the proportion of victims experiencing a cessation of abuse at the point of exit from the Independent Domestic Violence Advocacy service (IDVA) increases at each stage of the criminal justice process. The most significant increase in cessation of abuse is for those victims where the perpetrator had been charged with an offence following a report to the Police, compared to where there is no charge.
Taken together, this shift in performance is unprecedented. And I think it is important to note that it been achieved against a background of a significant reduction in budget.
But the figures only tell half the story.
The work of the service in recognising violence against women and girls as a unified, high-priority issue, championed at the most senior level nationally and in the Areas, and addressed through new policies, training and the use of specialist staff, has delivered a cultural change.
Cases are now judged entirely on the merits of the evidence: we have recognised that myths and stereotypes previously held have no place in our criminal justice system - and that we need to tackle them head on.
This cultural shift is shown most clearly by looking at individual cases. We are using our greater awareness and understanding to bring successful prosecutions. The following cases illustrate how we use that understanding to look positively at the difficulties and challenges presented by these cases.
Domestic Violence Case
Victims in domestic violence prosecutions often withdraw, or do not attend court, often due to intimidation and fear.
Diana's findings are again useful to consider here - 62% of victims supported by IDVAs are experiencing severe physical violence when they come into contact with the Criminal Justice System. That means assaults involving bruising, lacerations, burns, broken bones, threats and attempts to kill, strangulation, or miscarriage. It is therefore understandable that these victims are fearful about facing their abuser in court.
Since the introduction of the Violence Against Women and Girls strategy we have improved our support for those victims and our rates of bringing those offenders to justice - offenders who previously may have felt that they could get away with it if they could keep the victim away from the court.
In a recent example in Merseyside the defendant and victim had been in a relationship for three months. They lived some distance apart. On one particular evening the victim had travelled to visit the defendant.
They had been socialising with some of his friends. The victim became uncomfortable due to the defendant's behaviour and decided to leave. It was at this point that the defendant assaulted her by dragging her to the floor and repeatedly striking her.
The attending officer noted the victim's distress, torn clothing and her injuries and gave a very good description of the scene.
At interview the defendant made admissions including striking her out of anger while she was on the floor, as he claimed she was pretending to fit and called her 'an attention-seeking little bitch'. Yet he pleaded not guilty to one of the assaults despite this initial admission.
On the day of trial the victim did not attend. She had told the Witness Care Officer in the case that she was terrified of the defendant and no longer felt safe leaving the house. She reported having received a number of anonymous phone calls, threatening her about the case. The Witness Care Officer had worked with the victim to support her, making sure she was aware of the special measures that had been granted - a screen that would shield her from the defendant. However this was clearly not enough to allay her concerns. The defendant also failed to attend his trial.
We applied to proceed in the defendant's absence by using carefully edited statements and the admissions made in the police interview. The Court queried whether the prosecution could in fact proceed based on admissions only as this would amount to a case based solely or decisively on hearsay - namely a confession.
We were able to provide the most current legal judgement in full and explain to the Court how the edited statements provided supporting evidence and reminded the Court it could apply all the statutory safeguards.
The Court was then satisfied that we were able to proceed. The case was found proved beyond reasonable doubt and a warrant issued for the defendant for sentence.
The complications in this case were overcome as a result of good police investigation, and a proactive approach by the prosecutor - preparing the case well enough to continue when the victim was kept away through fear.
Tackling myths and stereotypes has been crucial to improving our prosecutions in cases of rape and sexual assault - particularly those where the victims are working as prostitutes.
Last year we dealt with a case here in London where the defendant had specifically targeted prostitutes and lone women. These women were all vulnerable, either through age or as a result of drug and/or alcohol misuse.
There were a great number of challenges in this case. For example, one of the complaints did not initially report her assault to the police - because there was a warrant out for her arrest for an earlier offence. The offence was only reported when the police had found some of her blood at the scene of another rape by the defendant.
We worked closely with the police and successfully adduced hearsay evidence in relation to early complaints; admitted a full range of evidence from 999 calls to medical evidence; made early application for special measures; successfully challenged applications to adduce irrelevant pre-convictions and alleged conduct of the complainants.
The victims were also all supported throughout the trial process by an ISVA, which can be so helpful in such cases.
The defendant was found guilty of rape, serious sexual assault and kidnapping, and he was sentenced to a total of 22 years imprisonment with indefinite notification requirements.
We are also challenging head-on defence strategies which use women's employment as prostitutes to suggest that they gave consent.
Indeed, in a recent case the fact that the complainants were all prostitutes was used proactively to rebut the defence of consent. This was on the basis that it was highly unlikely that women who sold sex for a living would falsely allege rape simply because they hadn't been paid as agreed, thereby bringing themselves voluntarily to the attention of the police and the criminal justice system.
What we do next
The figures and cases I have outlined show the huge progress we have made. But of course we can do more - both to further improve our performance in areas such as rape and domestic violence, but also to tackle other issues.
- Child sexual exploitation - this can involve a broad range of exploitative activity, from seemingly 'consensual' relationships and informal exchanges of sex for attention, accommodation, gifts or cigarettes, through to very serious organised crime. These prosecutions are often made more complex because perpetrators often target the most vulnerable of young victims, often with past behavioural problems. Our better understanding of the context and complexities associated with particular forms of offending and our application of the merits-based approach has already improved the quality of our prosecutions - but I want to do more.
I recently asked my senior leaders across the country to identify child sexual exploitation prosecutions that are currently open and proceeding through the criminal justice system.
The problem is clearly more prevalent than previously thought. We will be analysing these cases and identifying good practice to share with our prosecutors.
- Violence against women and girls is not a race issue, but what we do recognise is that the manifestation of abuse varies across communities and we have to discuss the issues and possible solutions together with those communities. So I am chairing a case review panel to explore the handling of the Rochdale prosecutions to identify any lessons learnt from the case handling and to then look at how we can best work with different communities in challenging child sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls more generally.
- Teenage relationship abuse. Findings from the British Crime Survey in 2009-10 indicated that the 16-19 age range were at the highest risk of experiencing domestic abuse. And we know that young victims are even less likely to report abuse. Last year our Equality and Diversity Unit undertook a review of all 65 prosecutions flagged as domestic violence and involving a young offender and/or a young victim. The research indicated a low volume of prosecutions in teenage relationships, with little reference to support for victims. Earlier today I hosted a National Scrutiny Panel at which we scrutinised six of these cases from across the country, and we will be working on the recommendations from that panel during the coming months.
- Female genital mutilation, for which there have been no prosecutions. I have met Baroness Tonge, Baroness Rendell and Baroness Morris to discuss female genital mutilation and will be holding a roundtable discussion in September to discuss the barriers to effectively prosecuting these cases. I am determined that we will find a way to bring offenders to account.
- I have previously said that it was time for us to consider the effectiveness of using witness summons, particularly in cases of domestic violence. Therefore earlier this year we commissioned some research into the most effective actions following a victim's decision not to engage or to withdraw their support for a prosecution. The research incorporates an analysis of case files and feedback from IDVAs obtained via questionnaires and focus groups. The research will be completed this year and will hopefully form the foundation through which further improvements in the way that we deal with violence against women and girls can be achieved.
We have achieved a great deal in recent years. We now deliver justice for 15,000 more women each year than we did just four years ago. And we do so within a different culture - one which challenges myths and stereotypes and should improve confidence in the criminal justice system.
But while more than 300,000 women are sexually assaulted each year, while only one in ten women who experience serious sexual assault report it to the police, and while conviction rates remain lower for these attacks than for other crimes, none of us can afford to stop working to improve further.