Trialling technology to address the rape conviction crisis
Milad Shojaei investigates the UK’s rape conviction crisis, and how falling conviction rates can be reversed with pre-recorded video evidence from victims and the integration of technology in the criminal courts.
Rape conviction rates at an all-time low
Reported cases of rape have risen significantly over the last five years, but the proportion of prosecutions has fallen drastically. In 2019, only 4% of all rape cases reported to the police were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and of these, just over three quarters made it to court. The number of people effectively prosecuted and convicted for rape has fallen to an all-time low. The police have recorded 55,130 rapes, but only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions in England and Wales in 2019/20. The CPS and justice system have, as a result, faced heavy criticism.
According to the Criminal Justice Statistics published by the UK government, the conviction rate for all other crimes is increasingly higher than that of rape. With rape conviction rates falling drastically each year, it is clear that the criminal justice system (CJS) is facing an unprecedented crisis.
Why is the justice system failing rape victims?
Rape cases remain inherently challenging to prosecute, and as connected to the fundamental issues of defining consent, the duty of disclosure and data breaches during investigations. In most cases, there is also limited forensic evidence that can be relied upon. It is no surprise that the prosecution’s prospects of successful prosecution depend mostly on the effectiveness of pre-recorded video evidence. With the CJS largely resisting the use of technology, the question beckons, does the HMCTS effectively recognise the option of reversing the falling conviction rates with greater innovation?
Trialling new technology in the criminal courts
The UK government announced in August 2020 that by the end of 2020, all vulnerable victims and witnesses would be able to give pre-recorded evidence in all Crown courts. Although pre-recorded evidence was already available in 18 Crown courts across the country, there will be a more comprehensive roll-out of the initiative as of September 2020.
The proposals will allow rape victims to pre-record their evidence, including cross-examination, which would then be relied upon in court. Such developments in technology will also be used for victims aged under 18 and those with mental disorders, disabilities or impairments. These innovative developments will help protect victims of rape from needless trauma, alongside the stress-induced experience of appearing in court.
"This technology ensures they [vulnerable victims] are protected and are able to give their best possible evidence, without reducing a defendant's right to a fair trial"
- Justice minister, Alex Chalk
Judges and defendants will watch evidence being presented via video link, and the presiding justice can retain evidence when content that all essential questions have been put forward. According to The Telegraph, the implementation of this new method within criminal trials has reduced trauma, alongside assisting the recollection of events.
Recording video evidence allows the complainant to provide a closer account to the alleged incident, as opposed to attempting to recall the facts much later at trial. It equally allows a potential victim to show their emotions sooner. This can support criminal convictions, given the impact on helping juries reach just conclusions. Promoting pre-recorded evidence in rape trials can also allow the complainant to recall events in considerably less pressurised environments, improving the quality of the evidence in favour of prosecutions.
Using pre-recorded interviews as evidence-in-chief allows greater analysis of the evidence before it is presented at trial. This also encourages better police investigation, as interviews can be checked, and the strengths of the victims allegations of rape can be tested, resulting in improved quality of resulting evidence.
The CPS five-year blueprint
In addressing the issues and the criticism faced, the CPS has announced it’s five-year blueprint, Rape and Serious Sexual Offences 2025 (RASSO). The blueprint is strategically designed to assist in understanding and addressing the low rape conviction rates.
The strategy is underpinned by a significant commitment to technological advancements, including harnessing new technologies to support effective prosecutions. The CPS blueprint also includes a greater focus on training specialists prosecutors to understand the implications of new technology for rape and serious sexual offences. Given the vital value behind pre-recorded evidence and its impact on rape victims, greater reliance on innovative methods, and a more technologically aware prosecution service will undoubtedly pave the way for a more equipped CJS.
A solution to a broken justice system?
Pre-recorded evidence offers the CPS the opportunity to improve on the quality of information derived from rape cases, alongside assisting those who are too vulnerable to give evidence in court. Given the UK’s alarming rape conviction rates in the past decade, it is clear that the matter needs to be addressed with greater urgency. Adducing better available evidence can positively influence just outcomes in the crown courts. Using technology can, therefore enhance the prospects of convictions while promoting the interests of due process in the CJS.
The main concern and criticism with pre-recorded evidence relates to the poor quality of the recording, and how significantly it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Managing and operating new technologies can be increasingly difficult, but the solution should not be a move away from technology. Instead, the CJS should look to address the associated skills gap, and invest more resources in innovative solutions.
Of course, the lack of technology is not the sole reason behind the rape conviction crisis, as there are wider factors that contribute to the problem. Yet, the application of existing technologies should still be considered as a priority to address the decriminalisation of rape in the UK.
Introducing UCL FTR's Guest Writer
Milad Shojaei is a Trainee Legal Advisor at the Ministry of Justice UK, undergoing his period of recognised training at Willesden Magistrates Court. He is also a Strategy & Engagement Director at UCL Fintech Society Sponsor, CASEDO.
Milad completed his Bachelor of Laws at City, University of London and received his Call to the Bar in November 2019. Shortly after completing a Master of Laws, he joined LPC Law as a County Court Advocate, appearing before district judges and representing clients in Commercial & Civil matters. He now specialises in criminal justice, advising on complex legal issues at HM Courts & Tribunal Service.
You can contact Milad via LinkedIn.
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