Prosecuting Rape - Siobhan Blake
Siobhan Blake is the Chief Crown Prosecutor for CPS Mersey-Cheshire and is the Deputy National Lead on Rape and Serious Sexual Offences
Like most prosecutors, there are some cases which will always remain with me and remind me of the importance of my role in the community.
Every day, CPS lawyers across the country receive hundreds of case files with harrowing accounts of how crime has devastated lives. For me beginning my career at CPS more than 20 years ago, the rape cases in particular resonated, not just because I was acutely aware of the personal tragedy each case represented for the victim, but also because of the unique challenges building a rape case for those who bring the cases before the courts.
Rape cases are complex because they often happen in private between people who are known to each other - usually with no other witnesses and very little likelihood of other forms of evidence such as CCTV or forensic being available. This has been exacerbated further in the last 10 years as we live more and more of our lives online. Technology has changed the way we interact with each other and this brings new challenges gathering evidence and prosecuting these cases.
What hasn’t changed for prosecutors is a strong desire to see justice served fairly and openly. It has been inspiring to see how colleagues in our 14 Rape and Serious Sexual Offences units across the country have overcome tricky legal challenges to do just that.
This year the CPS and police have been the subject of wide ranging criticism on how rape cases are handled. I know today’s figures in the annual CPS Violence Against Women and Girls’ (VAWG) report showing rape charges have fallen for the second year in a row are a major concern; as are the introduction of digital access forms to explain how the mobile phones of rape victims may be used.
There has been a suggestion the criminal justice system is not taking rape seriously enough. Please let me reassure everybody affected by these appalling crimes that this is not the case.
The growing gap between the number of rapes recorded, and the number of cases going to court is a cause of serious concern and it is vital we work to understand what is behind this trend.
The drop has not been triggered by any change in policy, or lack of commitment to prosecute. Our decisions must be taken fairly and impartially, balancing the rights of suspects and defendants while providing the best possible service to victims. It is in everybody’s interest that the right cases come to court.
I have every confidence in the work of our prosecutors - but it is vital the public have confidence too.
That’s why today, as part of the ongoing cross government review of sexual offences, we have announced that the independent CPS watchdog, Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) will undertake a review our casework.
We believe the fall is due to a number of reasons; one issue is we are having fewer cases referred to us by police and of these, there have been an increase in these being administratively finalised. In layman’s terms, this means we pass the case back to the police without having made a legal decision so they can consider getting further information, this might be more witness statements, CCTV or digital evidence.
If we are not updated by the police within a three month period, the case returns to police but it can, of course, be re-visited when we receive a full file.
We work very closely with the police to both support and challenge each other in understanding the fall in charges. We are also working together to try and tackle advances in technology so evidence can be gathered effectively and decisions made quickly.
We all have a responsibility to make sure that the right cases get to court. Our specialist teams are highly trained in the complexities of these offences, including rape myths and stereotypes.
We have also committed to publishing our VAWG data, including rape charging rates, more regularly so each quarter we can look closely at emerging trends and discuss them with our stakeholders. If this increased scrutiny shows that changes need to made, we will not shy away from tackling these issues head on.
We want every victim of sexual violence to have confidence to come forward and report, knowing that it will be fully investigated and, whenever the evidence supports, charged and fairly prosecuted.