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CPS updates rape legal guidance to reflect rapid growth in digital evidence

|News, Sexual offences

The CPS has published refreshed rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) legal guidance, delivering on our ongoing commitment to make the prosecution of these crimes reflect today’s rapidly changing society.

Following extensive consultation with experts and survivor groups, the latest guidance contains fresh insights into the impact of trauma on victims and updated advice on when it is reasonable to make requests for digital evidence such as mobile phone downloads.

Prosecutors and police are also asked to place extra focus on the actions and behaviour of the suspect when conducting rape investigations - a so-called ‘offender-centric approach’.

The new guidance takes on board considerations from a wide range of victim support groups, psychologists and the legal community, following a public consultation launched in October last year.

Siobhan Blake, CPS lead for RASSO prosecutions, said: “At the CPS, we are determined to reverse the drop in rape and sexual offence cases going to court. Too few victims are seeing justice, and we want to change that.

“These cases are some of the most challenging and sensitive to prosecute, but we are committed to improving every aspect of how they are handled.

“Giving our expert prosecutors the tools they need to build strong cases is at the heart of that effort, and this new guidance will help support their decision-making and challenge emerging myths and stereotypes.”

Key changes in the guidance, the first full revamp since 2012, include updated sections on:

  • The impact of trauma. This stresses the need for prosecutors to ‘understand the complexities surrounding the impact of sexual assault and specifically the impact of trauma on memory, behaviour and demeanour.’ The guidance cites studies finding 80 per cent of young female victims report some sort of mental health disorder following an attack, which is particularly relevant when it comes to understanding inconsistencies in the complainant’s evidence. 
  • Offender-centric approach. This expanded advice encourages police and prosecutors to take an ‘offender-centric approach to case building which involves looking closely at the actions of the suspect both before, during and after the alleged assault.’ This is intended to ensure the investigation is fair and not unduly focused on the behaviour and actions of the complainant.
  • Reasonable lines of enquiry/digital data. Recognising the exponential growth in digital evidence over the past decade, this section takes further steps to balance the privacy of the complainant with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. It advises that requesting material from digital devices ‘should not be taken lightly’ and only where relevant - giving examples of cases where this evidence may not be necessary, such as so-called ‘stranger rapes’ and non-recent allegations.

Claire Waxman, the London Victims’ Commissioner, said: “I welcome the new and refreshed guidance on rape and serious sexual offences, published today. This is encouraging progress.

“I am pleased that the Crown Prosecution Service has responded to my call to introduce trauma training and to refresh their guidance. For too long, evidence of trauma, such as inconsistencies in memory, has been misinterpreted as victims being unreliable and has wrongly influenced charging decisions.

“It is also heartening to see a move towards an ‘offender-centric’ approach. Sadly, I know that some victims can find themselves subject to disproportionate scrutiny, and are left feeling like they are the one on trial. There should be greater focus on the behaviour and actions of the suspect, and with the right training and overarching strategy, an ‘offender-centric’ approach could transform rape prosecutions.”

These additions follow the incorporation of updated sections covering rape myths and stereotypes and cases involving same-sex suspects and complainants.

All prosecutors working in our specialist RASSO units will be supported to apply this guidance through a wide-ranging training programme.

The refreshed guidance delivers on a key pledge of our RASSO 2025 strategy, an ambitious five-year programme to drive system-wide improvements in the handling of rape cases and increase the number of strong prosecutions.

Over the past year, the CPS has worked closely with police forces across England and Wales to reverse the trend of declining prosecutions. In January we published the Joint National Action Plan in partnership with the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) which sets out a wide-ranging plan for greater collaboration to improve the response to RASSO cases.

This builds on extensive collaboration across England and Wales, where police and CPS have joined forces to roll out significant changes to shared working practices. Local initiatives to improve the number of cases taken forward, reduce delays in charging decisions and increase charges for offenders of rape and serious sexual assault are achieving positive results.

As part of a collective drive to improve the charging rates for these offences, analysis has been carried out to understand which local initiatives have been most effective in order to roll these out across the country.

Rape or Sexual Abuse Support (RoSA), a charity that specialises in working with survivors, said: ‘’It is really encouraging to read such comprehensive guidance which supports our role as independent sexual violence advisers in advocating for our clients through the criminal justice system.

“This is a very thorough document which I hope will help other professionals to navigate through the system in a way which acknowledges and supports the needs of vulnerable witnesses in this challenging and complex area of work.’’

  • If you need support for rape or sexual abuse, you can call the 24-hour freephone National Abuse Helpline run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.
  • Alternatively, you can call the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999 (12.00-2.30pm and 7.00-9.30pm every day of the year)

 

Notes to editors

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