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Survivors, not suspects

Can a new report finally get rape victims out of the dock?

Artillery Row

The report from the UK Information Commissioner, John Edwards, could hardly be more damning. Rape victims “are being treated as suspects,” it declares. They are “being told to consent to handing over extraordinary amounts of information about their lives, in the immediate aftermath of a life changing attack”. So ground-breaking is the report that Edwards thinks it has the potential to have a greater impact on people’s lives than any other work done by his office.

Prosecution and conviction rates were in freefall

He’s right — and I am so relieved. Four years ago, I joined the London Victims’ Commissioner, Claire Waxman, in making a complaint to the ICO about how rape victims were being treated by the criminal justice system. I knew that women who dragged themselves into a police station to report a rape at 2 am were being asked to sign a so-called “Stafford statement”, authorising access to massive amounts of personal information at a time when they were in no state to consent. I knew that victims were living in terror that intensely private information — about an abortion, say — would be disclosed to the defence and hence to the wider world. I knew that women were being advised to avoid counselling in case the counsellor’s notes were demanded and used against them in court.

At the same time, I could see that prosecution and conviction rates were in freefall, driven in no small part by the fact that so many women couldn’t bear the ordeal they were being put through by police and prosecutors. Every time I or any of the women’s organisations that advocate for victims’ rights raised these concerns, we were told intrusion on this scale was necessary for justice to be done. The nature of that “justice” is evident in the statistics: only 1.3 per cent (820) of the record 63,136 rape offences recorded by police in England and Wales in the twelve months to September 2021 led to a suspect being charged. To put that in context, around 1,200 women reported a rape each week, but fewer than 30 suspects were charged.

The inescapable conclusion is that thousands of sexual predators are being allowed to remain free and target other victims. But I believe the reality is even worse: they are being helped to do so by a criminal justice system that has fatally confused victims and perpetrators. That’s exactly what the ICO found when it began investigating our complaint, describing “an upsetting picture of how victims of rape and serious sexual assault feel treated. Victims are being treated as suspects, and people feel re-victimised by a system they expect to support them”.

The report (technically an “opinion”) singles out the use of Stafford statements for condemnation, saying that the ICO “expects this practice to stop immediately”. In one of its most important sections, it confirms that in many cases victims “are subjected to a far greater level of scrutiny of their personal information than the suspects”. The ICO report goes on to acknowledge that intrusive demands for victims’ data are made even in cases where the complainant and alleged perpetrator were previously unknown to each other.

The idea that women lie about rape is as old as the hills

How did we arrive at a situation when someone reporting a serious crime is investigated more thoroughly than the alleged attacker? The answer is discrimination, pure and simple. The idea that women lie about rape is as old as the hills and as entrenched, even though the evidence is actually the other way round. Do we really believe that more than 60,000 women lie to the police about being raped every year? Or is it possible that it’s the sexual predators who habitually lie, claiming that the complainant consented even in circumstances where any reasonable person would conclude she didn’t? If police and prosecutors took that on board, and investigated suspects’ credibility with the zeal they currently put into undermining victims, maybe we wouldn’t be in a situation where rape has been all but decriminalised.

No one is arguing that rape allegations should not be investigated. What I’m saying is that the criminal justice system is prejudiced against complainants, making unreasonable demands of victims and using irrelevant personal data to discontinue cases. 

If a school report suggests that a thirteen-year-old girl once forged her mother’s signature to get out of games, does that mean her allegation of rape thirty years later must be made up? Obviously not, given the time lapse and very different circumstances, but this is exactly the kind of information police have been looking for — and then making sweeping and untested interpretations of character in response.

This is a very important point, given that many rape victims belong to vulnerable groups — black women and girls, women with disabilities and lesbians — and are thus doubly victimised.

If I wanted to design an investigatory process that would cause further distress to complainants while letting off thousands of sexual predators, I’d come up with something very like the criminal justice system we have now. The ICO report makes the point forcefully, looking beyond the technicalities to the attitudes that lie behind the obsessive collections of victims’ personal information.

“This Opinion isn’t about data protection and data processing, it’s about relationships, trust, human rights and human dignity,” it observes. As this excoriating report shows, the current system isn’t much interested in dignity — and it certainly doesn’t provide justice for women.

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