No, rape has not been ‘decriminalised’

Conviction rates are volatile and in flux – it does no good to politicise them.

Luke Gittos


According to campaigners, rape has been ‘effectively decriminalised’ in the UK. Crown Prosecution Service figures reveal that there were 1,925 convictions for rape or an alternative lesser offence in 2018-19, down from 2,635 in the previous 12 months. The charge rate has dropped from 64.3 per cent in 2014-15 to 48.2 per cent this year. Referrals by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) fell from 4,370 in 2017-18 to 3,375 in 2018-19.

A coalition of women’s groups, represented by the Centre of Women’s Justice, is preparing to launch a legal challenge against the CPS. These campaigners say rape cases are being ‘dropped’ for no good reason. In truth, we shouldn’t rush to conclusions.

The justice system’s efficacy in dealing with rape seems to change year on year. In 2017, according to the CPS, more defendants than ever before were being prosecuted and convicted for sexual offences across England and Wales. Figures published that year showed huge increases in convictions for rape and other sexual offences: 11.8 per cent more people were charged and 11.2 per cent more were convicted than in the previous year. In 2013, it was also reported that the conviction rate was at an ‘all-time high’ — 63 per cent. Of course, these figures cannot be explained by a single change in policy during a particular year. The numbers are volatile and subject to complex influences.

It is difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions about any figures related to sexual violence in the justice system – and reading too much into the figures can have unintended consequences. This point was made by Baroness Stern in her 2010 report into how rape complaints are handled. Stern warned that simplistic headlines about low conviction rates for rape may be putting women off from coming forward to the police.

One possible explanation for this year’s low figures could be the CPS is becoming less willing to prosecute evidentially weak cases. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. Prosecutions should be brought when the Crown decides that it is more likely than not to obtain a conviction. If it believes at an early stage that the evidence is not adequate, then it is right that a case is discontinued so that both the complainant and the defendant can try to move on. It would be appalling if evidentially weak cases were dragged through court only to end in a rapid acquittal.

For the Guardian, this year’s figures suggest that prosecutors may be taking a more ‘risk-averse approach’ in rape cases in order to stem reports of low conviction rates. This may well be the case. Fixating on statistics like conviction rates encourages prosecutors to consider factors beyond the evidence available to them. This may mean good cases getting missed and evidentially poor cases getting charged. Neither of these is a good outcome. Risk aversion may not be a bad thing in itself. Prosecutors should be ‘risk averse’ before they charge a defendant with one of the most serious offences on the statute book.

There are some statistics which remain constant. The number of crimes reported and recorded by the police as rape has been increasing exponentially for years. In 2015-16, there were around 39,000 reports of rape made to the police, and around 49,000 in 2016-17. This was up from just over 13,000 reports in 2013-2014. It continues to increase year on year. Campaigners argue that the increased number of reports coupled with a lack of an increase in the volume of convictions means that the justice system is chronically failing to deal with rape (this is despite the overall number of convictions reaching an all-time high in 2017).

But this is only one of many possible explanations. It could be that there were many more rapes in 2017 than there were in 2013-2014. It could be that the police are more willing to record allegations as rape. It may be that more people are willing to interpret incidents as rape than they might have been previously, and that accordingly they feel better able to approach the authorities. All of these are possibilities. None are certainties.

Rape statistics have been subject to debate for a long time. It is commonly believed that the conviction rate for rape is around three per cent. The Stern Report highlights the widespread confusion between the conviction rate and the attrition rate. The conviction rate for rape tends to be around six per cent. This appears low, and it is usually presented in the media without analysis or explanation. But we do not measure attrition for most offences in the same way. As the Stern report explains:

‘The term “conviction rate” usually describes the percentage of all the cases brought to court that end with the defendant being convicted. When dealing with rape… [it] describes the percentage of all the cases recorded by the police as a rape that end up with someone being convicted of rape’

Comparisons with the conviction rates of other crimes are not like for like. But we do know that once a case gets before a jury, jurors are consistently more likely to convict a defendant than to acquit them. Contrary to popular myth, Home Office research in 2010 failed to find evidence that jurors were biased against rape complainants.

There are still many issues with the way the justice system deals with rape and sexual assault. The police certainly need more resources. We also need to interrogate why the reporting rate continues to increase. But to claim that rape has been ‘decriminalised’ is irresponsible. We need to recognise that these figures defy simple explanation. Attempts to politicise rape, and to drive a particular narrative about what the figures show, will make it harder to deliver justice.

Luke Gittos is a spiked columnist and author of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans. His latest book, Human Rights – Illusory Freedom: Why We Should Repeal the Human Rights Act, is published by Zero Books. Order it here.

Picture by: YouTube.

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steve moxon

19th September 2019 at 6:52 am

Just how LLLLLLLOOOOONNNNGGGGG does ‘moderation’ take on this site?!
Is ‘modding’ on here done by a spiteful five-year-old?
I’m simply replying to James Hillier that Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon was speaking at a Skeptics event.
Is the idea to try to make out contributors you don’t like don’t respond to questions?

Ed Turnbull

19th September 2019 at 8:08 am

Yes, frustrating isn’t it? My comment has been in mod limbo for over 12 hours now and I struggle to understand why. It contains only a single instance of very mild profanity (the kind of thing you hear on tv well before the 21:00 watershed these days). And I wasn’t aware that Sp!ked had an issue with bitter sarcasm. So why? I didn’t defame any individual, I didn’t write about any case that’s sub judice. Maybe it’s because I inadvertently omitted a comma, and there’s no edit function to enable me to correct that terrible mistake.

steve moxon

19th September 2019 at 1:14 pm

There’s not even so much as that in mine, which again they’ve not let through!
The ‘moderation’ here is totally unfit for purpose.

Ian McIntyre

18th September 2019 at 11:47 pm

The unpalatable reality is that you will never get high conviction rates for rape allegations without ripping up the burden of proof and the principle of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Most incidents later reported as rape occur in private, between people who know each other and where at least one of the parties is drunk. It is relatively simple forensically to prove that intercourse took place. It all boils down to the issue of consent, which invariably becomes one person’s word against another. The police exhaustively investigate ALL rape allegations. This I can absolutely vouch for.
I don’t see much concern about the extremely low conviction rates for false rape allegations. Trying to prove a malicious allegation beyond reasonable doubt is equally challenging. However, this is an area where there, even if sufficient evidence exists, there is a clear reluctance by the Police and Prosecutors to take cases. This is purely because it is unpalatable socio-politically. There is a massive under recording, reporting and prosecuting of malicious rape claims and that should be challenged.


19th September 2019 at 12:09 am

I think you are correct. There is much that is not OK here…

I hear a great deal about false rape allegations – there seems more focus on this, whenever I encounter the topic (and I don’t go seeking it). 7 out of the (so far) 10 OP posts here focus on false allegations as the issue here. False allegations are absolutely not OK.

Is there anything else that is not OK here?

I’m not sure what the focus says currently about our world, but it makes me feel uneasy.

Chris Hanley

18th September 2019 at 11:42 pm

Not enough rape convictions?
Perhaps the paradoxically titled Centre of Women’s Justice would be happier with a Stalinist quota system, instead of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ a specific number of ‘toxic-male-rapists’ (‘all men are rapists’) ought be arrested annually, given a fair trial, convicted and jailed.

Ed Turnbull

18th September 2019 at 7:36 pm

Are we really surprised that the “Centre for Women’s Justice” is complaining? I’m always suspicious when someone places a modifier (like ‘social’ or ‘climate’) in front of the word ‘justice’. ‘Justice’ is a word that needs no modifier to apply one changes the original meaning. Utterly.

Anyway, be that as it may we all know that for the wamynz ‘justice’ is synonymous with ‘conviction’ (of men at any rate). Failure to achieve conviction – on the unsubstantiated word of a wamyn (‘cos wamynz never lie; and even when they do, well, that’s due to…misogyny, obviously) – is clearly an injustice, and further evidence of the patriarchy. Outdated concepts such as due process, presumption of innocence and ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ are the creation of cis-het white males and, as such, are ‘problematic’ and must be swept away. Immediately. That there are actually people out there who largely believe such shit – and not all of them are wamynz, there are plenty of soy boys who think that being ‘woke’ is the only way they’ll get laid – is just further evidence that we’re living in Clownworld.

James Knight

18th September 2019 at 5:34 pm

Given the concern many campaigners have about “sending the wrong message”, claiming that rape has been “decriminalised” looks like a an irresponsible and dangerous message to send to potential offenders.

Dominic Straiton

18th September 2019 at 3:21 pm

The presumption of innocence and jury trial is the best way ever invented to secure justice and avoid lynching. Having been on a jury in such a case I can tell you all the evidence is taken seriously. Most people come to the court with a prejudice to convict. Sitting in a jury over days or weeks your mind convicts and exonerates on a daily or hourly basis. Then the twelve men and women come together on the evidence presented. Its as simple as that.
As we have seen in Parliament. Mess with the basics the whole thing falls to pieces and were back to lynching.

H McLean

18th September 2019 at 11:01 am

The campaigners didn’t seem to mind when men were being prosecuted ‘for no good reason’, did they? Maybe a reduction in prosecutions is a result of the standard in previous years becoming far too lax and haphazard to meet reasonable expectations of a successful prosecution. This is what happens when DV and sexual assault are politicised as gendered issues. As usual, feminists are to blame.


18th September 2019 at 10:08 am

All emotion aside. Is the statement: this means only 0.003% of the population are being raped a year likely to be true or false? If we don’t think it’s likely to be true, then there genuinely is an issue.

Melissa Jackson

18th September 2019 at 10:59 am

That’s a difficult question for numerous reasons. We know for certain that only a small fraction of crimes are reported in every field. Rape is historically underreported too, although I would suggest this is more because victims want to move on with their lives than because the police refuse to believe women.

So, certainly more people are being raped than is reported in any official document. Bluntly; if anyone doesn’t report being raped this must be true. The question is more to do with the general prevalence.

Given just how much effort has been made to get victims to come forward, so much so that there have been many very dubious or even utterly fabricated cases, it’s hard to believe that reporting rates are down.

If reporting rates are up, or stable, but convictions down that means that there are fewer rapes happening. That seems likely given how it is much more in the public consciousness today.

It is also worth noting that previous high conviction rates were artificially high, as a result of political pressure. So in truth we probably have higher reporting rates and appropriate conviction rates, and together these show a general downward trend in rape.

Of course all rapes are horrendous crimes. But we can never stamp out all crime, and even if we could it would be very draconian. That we have achieved a general downwards trend in rape is something to be happy about, even if we can’t really celebrate it.


18th September 2019 at 11:41 am

I’m sorry Melissa, I’ve read your response and I’m unclear what your conclusion is. Is it that the 0.003% is the bit “we can never entirely stamp out”? If so, then does that mean we’re in a great place and all is well?

I’d be interested in how the stats play in the complete picture of crime stats. I do wonder if it would tell us anything, unfortunately I’m neither equipped or have access to such things. Are other crimes anywhere near as rare as 0.003% I wonder?

It’s long been recognised that when footie teams loose, domestic violence goes up. Amongst this must be spousal rape. Without getting bogged down in the ‘special features’ of spousal rape, I’m illustrating that rape statistics are not something separate to other crime.

Did you know we’re about to build the biggest prison in Europe in Yorkshire? Crime it seems has not gone down… yet rape has, has it?

Jim Lawrie

18th September 2019 at 9:45 am

These banshees want convictions. Not any old conviction. The right kind of man must be convicted. Those guilty of being white and heterosexual. And the right kind of victim – not white working class. The rape thing is just a means to an end, to be made easier by demanding a default position where the accuser is believed, not investigated.

Michael Lynch

18th September 2019 at 10:40 pm

Spot on. Modern Feminism seems to be a rather twisted ideology nowadays. No one stood up for those underage white girls and they are still not. The whole affair hurriedly glossed over by Feminists as soon as it surfaced. But how they jumped on the bandwagon when a couple of Hollywood crows proclaimed that regret was a form of rape in order to revitalize dead careers. ‘Me too’ quickly became ‘look at me, look at me’ instead!

Stephen J

18th September 2019 at 8:20 am

Cue, a national campaign to have sex crime reclassified as hate crime.

James Hillier

18th September 2019 at 8:13 am

It’s not long since 50 rape cases were dropped because lack of disclosure in the Liam Allen case, which almost sent an innocent man to prison, prompted a review of the quality of prosecution and police behaviour in rape cases and found it severely wanting. This was under a system which tried and did its best to convict Mark Pearson for a sexual assault which CCTV evidence showed conclusively that he physically could not have committed. The same system not only declined to prosecute his accuser for false and malicious allegations, it protects her to this day with anonymity. The reason the number of rape convictions has fallen probably has many causes. Conviction rates are down for a range of crimes, so at least some of these causes are nothing to do with the specific difficulties of trying rape. At the same time, it’s difficult not to think that the huge expansion of what we are now encouraged to think of as rape, which has taken us into areas in which it is impossible to gather evidence that will stand up in court, isn’t part of the problem. And this expansion is led by the very same activists who now decry the fall in conviction rates. What they want, is a return to the low standards of evidence and ethics that very nearly put Allen and Pearson, both innocent men, in prison. These activists should be seen for what they are: extremists who want to use fear and division to weaken the rule of law, because they are happy to see any men in prison, regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent.

steve moxon

18th September 2019 at 8:23 am

Well said. These campaigners simply hate men. Their extreme hate-mongering politics is translated into visceral hatred towards male individuals generically. It’s this obscenity we need ‘hate crime’ legislation to address. They should all be in prison.

James Hillier

18th September 2019 at 8:38 am

I’d settle for their actions and words being examined critically and for them being held to account for their hate-fueled and deceptive politics by being denied public funding or access to politicians.

steve moxon

18th September 2019 at 9:08 am

For a start, they need to be kicked out of the Home Office. The researcher, Belinda Brooks-Gordon describes the researchers within the Gnome Orifice as “a separatist-feminist cabal”. On several occasions the research community has threatened boycotts of Home Office research commissions, so appalled were they by summaries of research from the Home Office bearing no relation to the content.

James Hillier

18th September 2019 at 9:24 am

Oh really. That’s interesting. I’ve been appalled at the bias and low-quality in research output from the Women and Equalities Committee. I didn’t know about the Home Office. Are the objections of Dr Brooks-Gordon and others recorded somewhere in the public record?

steve moxon

18th September 2019 at 5:07 pm

She came to speak at Sheffield Skeptics: I’m quoting what she said there. It’s the sort of jibe someone will say in a meeting but not put into print I’d guess.
The dire standards of researching is the same issue across government, and most conspicuously the more political it is, as with the Women & Equalities Committee, obviously.
Just look at the the on-line harms consultation document. Evidential sources so partisan and non-scientific as would get marked down in a first year university student essay.
The dire standard of research across government is reflective of its total dysfunction caused by buying up wholesale ‘identity politics’, compounded by the invariable disaster of decision by committee. It’s one big ‘groupthink’ factory.

steve moxon

18th September 2019 at 5:27 pm

She came to speak at Sheffield Skeptics in the Pub: I’m quoting what she said there. It’s the sort of jibe someone will say in a meeting but not put into print I’d guess.
It’s the same issue across government, and most conspicuously the more political it is, as with the Women & Equalities Committee, obviously.
Just look at the on-line harms consultation document. Evidential sources so partisan and non-scientific as would be marked down in a first year university student essay.
The dire standard of research across government is reflective of its total dysfunction caused by buying up wholesale ‘identity politics’, compounded by the invariable disaster of decision by committee. It’s one big groupthink factory.

Jim Lawrie

18th September 2019 at 10:12 am

The changing of the rules under Angiolini in Scotland has left a mess of unsafe convictions. She saw it coming and bolted, leaving it for others to clean up.

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