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How we prosecute rape

Introduction by Max Hill KC, Director of Public Prosecutions 2018-2023

Max Hill QC, Director of Public Prosecutions
Max Hill KC,
Director of Public

Rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) are some of the most complex cases the CPS prosecutes.

The impact of these offences on victims, their families and their communities cannot be underestimated. While there has been long term progress in how the criminal justice system responds to these offences, more needs to be done to encourage victims to report abuse with confidence and to support them through the legal process so more offenders can be brought to justice.

RASSO 2025 sets out our strategy on rape and serious sexual offences for the next five years. It is underpinned by a commitment to making sure the right person is prosecuted for the right offence. It represents a clear articulation of the role that the CPS can play in driving a step change for the criminal justice system as a whole - a turning point in how we collectively approach our work.

Striking the balance between the needs and rights of victims and those of suspects is paramount to RASSO 2025, so all parties can have confidence that they will be treated fairly.

The CPS shares the deep public concern that while the number of RASSO reports to the police have increased in recent years, the number of cases going to court has fallen. Working with partners across the criminal justice system and with victims’ groups to understand why this is happening, and finding the best way forward, is urgent and necessary.   

As part of our commitment to that work, we want to highlight the activity taking place both nationally and across the country to drive the improvements everybody wants to see. The site will introduce our RASSO staff and give them a platform to discuss the nature of their work as well as shine a light on challenging cases and how those challenges have been overcome.

Progress is only possible through a long-term and concerted effort and investment from all parts of the criminal justice system. Through existing governance arrangements, we will regularly utcomes and our new success measures. We will focus on outcomes - not just outputs Building strong partnerships - at local and national levels - and demonstrating effective leadership across the whole system is a priority which underpins our entire strategy. Tackling such complex and serious crimes requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach and the CPS role is absolutely vital, but only forms one part of a meaningful solution.

Max Hill KC, Director of Public Prosecutions

Introduction from Siobhan Blake, Chief Crown Prosecutor for CPS West Midlands and CPS National Lead on Rape and Serious Sexual Offences

Siobhan Blake, CPS Lead on RASSO
Siobhan Blake, CPS
lead on RASSO

Every offence of rape or serious sexual assault represents a personal tragedy for the people affected by it.

Along with my colleagues who work in our specialist rape and serious sexual offence (RASSO) units around the country I understand the importance of robustly prosecuting these offences where the evidence meets our legal test; in the first instance for the victims but also for the good of the public at large. It is often highlighted that rape and serious sexual offences present particular challenges to the criminal justice system.

At the CPS we commit to having these cases prosecuted by specialist lawyers who are trained to understand these challenges and approach the decision making needed with the utmost sensitivity, fairness and care in order to support a just outcome for all affected.
During the course of my career I have specialised in prosecuting the perpetrators of these appalling offences. You will often hear CPS spokespeople say these cases are some of the most complex - and uniquely challenging - that we prosecute. I want to try and explain why.

First and foremost, we need to recognise the courage it takes for a victim to report such a deeply violating and distressing event to police. Those of us who prosecute these cases are all too aware of the unique barriers many face when deciding whether to report offences relating to sexual assault; shame, guilt, fear of the process, fear of not being believed, shock, cultural context, embarrassment, language barriers and fear of reprisal from the community are just some of the hurdles that victims of sexual offending might need to overcome to report an incident and support a prosecution.

 Rape and serious sexual offending remains one of the most misunderstood forms of criminality in society. The evidence shows that this type of offending is most commonly perpetrated by someone known to the victim and in many cases there will be no visible sign of injury. Significant psychological evidence shows that the neurological response to the trauma of rape and sexual assault can impact a victim’s ability to give a clear and coherent account of the event. However this evidence runs counter to many societal myths and sterotypes regarding rape and serious sexual offending which continue to persist and must be constantly challenged by prosecutors.

The legal and evidential requirements needed to effectively, efficiently and fairly proceed with a rape prosecution can be significant to overcome. Sexual offences typically occur in a private place between two individuals with little or no direct corroborating evidence. It is necessary under the law for the prosecution to provide evidence not only that a person did not consent to the act but that the perpetrator did not reasonably believe that they were consenting.

Often both the complainant and accused are known to each other and often they are the only direct witnesses. These issues are not present in every case, and they are in no way insurmountable barriers to prosecution. However they are some of the very real challenges that our specialist teams face down every day when building cases to charge and prosecute rape.

These cases require a careful and balanced assessment of all relevant evidence, including that related to the accused or the suspect, in order to make sure that the right cases are prosecuted and there is a fair trial.

This might involve scrutiny of accounts given of the event, forensic evidence and careful consideration of digital material and CCTV coverage. Investigators and prosecutors must constantly balance the right of all parties to privacy and the need to ensure all reasonable lines of enquiry are followed and appropriate material is identified and disclosed so the accused stands able to have a fair trial. This balance has become all the more acute with the growth of social media which presents both significant evidential opportunities and challenges given the huge volumes of personal material which is now potentially available in relation to all of us. Crucially, all parties must have confidence that they will be treated fairly by the CPS and wider justice system.

CPS must do more to bolster public confidence in CPS’ handling of these offences. I hope the resources available on this page, which show the huge amount of work we are undertaking to improve our response to these offences, can help with that. But let me be clear: we remain as committed as ever to bringing perpetrators of this horrific crime to justice. Whenever our legal test, the Code for Crown Prosecutors, is met, we will prosecute.

CPS tackling rape myths and stereotypes: Siobhan Blake – CPS Rape lead

As an experienced prosecutor of rape and serious sexual offences, I never underestimate the courage it takes for a victim to report such a deeply violating and distressing event to police.

CPS staff, especially those on our RASSO teams are all too aware of the unique barriers many face when deciding whether to report offences relating to sexual assault; these include shame, guilt, fear of the process, fear of not being believed, shock, cultural context, embarrassment, language barriers and fear of reprisal from the community.

Overcoming these hurdles to even report these crimes is significant and sexual offending remains one of the most misunderstood forms of criminality in society.

Societal myths and stereotypes around these offences are outdated and damaging - they must constantly be challenged by prosecutors.

Perceptions about who a victim is; how they dress and act both during or after an assault can very much be a source focus of the defence, but it is vital to understand these play no part in CPS decision-making on whether criminal charges should be brought.

Prosecutors are bound by the Code for Crown Prosecutors to consider whether there is any evidence that suggests the witness’s account is not credible or plausible. However, in doing so they must not be influenced by myths and stereotypes.

These decisions are made by specialist RASSO prosecutors who are some of the most experienced and skilled lawyers in the CPS. A vast amount of training is put in place to make sure our prosecutors fully understand rape myths and stereotypes so they are not influenced by them when making prosecution decisions.

It is only by helping our staff understand the complexity of these cases that we can overcome and counter the barriers they present.

I want to be clear about how we make our decisions on these cases - it is not based on a lawyer’s perception of which way a jury might go in deciding a defendant’s guilt. It is based - and always has been - on the merits of each individual case based on the Code for Crown Prosecutors.

The test for rape and serious sexual offences prosecutions is the same as for any other offence. The prosecutor must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, and that a prosecution is required in the public interest.

We very much recognise that the world is changing and the guidance that we issue needs to be constantly reviewed and updated to reflect this. This has included new training on the impact traumatic experiences such as sexual assault can have on behaviour.

We have also published a psychological evidence toolkit and guidance on prosecuting cases of same-sex violence in the last few months to help our staff understand specific vulnerabilities in these cases.

We have committed to launching a consultation on our rape legal guidance in the autumn. This will include updated content on myths and stereotypes to reflect the changing nature of sexual encounters and relationships and will be supported by a new suite of training tools for prosecutors, which have been developed with extensive stakeholder input.

It is only by seeking to fully understand the impact of myths and stereotypes that we can seek to counter them so victims can get the justice we all want to see.

Charlotte Caulton-Scott talks about giving rape and sexual assault victims a voice (TRIGGER WARNING: DISCUSSION OF RAPE)

Nijole O'Brien talks about persistence in prosecuting difficult rape cases (TRIGGER WARNING: DISCUSSION OF RAPE)

Asma Hopkinson discusses prosecuting a rape case involving a vulnerable victim (TRIGGER WARNING: DISCUSSION OF RAPE)

Nikki Powell talks about prosecuting a rape case, proving lack of capacity to consent (TRIGGER WARNING: DISCUSSION OF RAPE, INJURY)

Kunal Davé talks about prosecuting a complex case including historical evidence (TRIGGER WARNING: DISCUSSION OF RAPE)

How to report a crime

If you are in immediate danger, call 999

Call 101 for non-emergency enquiries

Rape Crisis (for women)

Victim Support

Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) – Some areas have Sexual Assault Referral Centres – use the NHS Choices tool to find one in your area

GOV.UK has a more detailed list of support services during the coronavirus pandemic:

Further reading

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