Rape conviction rates deserve careful explanation
"Only six per cent of rape cases ever reach conviction."
Yvette Cooper, Labour Party Conference, 3 October 2012
As Labour's annual conference draws to a close in Manchester, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper used her address yesterday to declare the Government "weak on policing and weak on crime."
To illustrate her point Ms Cooper drew delegates' attention to a number of striking claims, including one which Full Fact regulars might recognise.
According to the Shadow Home Secretary, fewer than one in sixteen (6%) of rape cases result in a criminal conviction, a problem which she conceded Labour had failed to properly address in office.
Baroness Stern was commissioned by the previous Government to look into rape cases in the criminal justice system, and her Independent Review into how Rape Complaints are Handled by Public Authorities In England And Wales addresses the 6% claim directly. It states:
"Much is said about the conviction rate for rape being six per cent in England and Wales… We have looked closely at the information about convictions for rape and it is clear to us that the figure for convictions of people of all ages charged with rape (as the term is normally used in relation to crime) is 58 per cent."
The problem with the figure is that the way it is arrived at is atypical compared to other conviction rates. The term 'conviction rate' usually describes the percentage of all the cases brought to court that end with the defendant being convicted.
However the 6% of cases cited by Yvette Cooper describes the percentage of all the cases recorded by the police as a rape that end up with someone being convicted of rape.
If the conviction rate for rape is calculated as a proportion of those cases that reach court, then it rises considerably to 58%.
Rape does suffer from a particularly high rate of 'attrition' - the process by which the number of the cases initially reported to police do not proceed, perhaps because the complainant decides not to take the case any further, the police or CPS decide that there is not enough evidence to proceed, or the case is taken to court and the suspect is acquitted.
Baroness Stern does note that this is an area of "considerable concern", and that "some have found [the 6% figure] helpful as a campaigning tool in arguing for an improvement in the way rape cases are dealt with."
However the review concludes that the use of the claim by politicians and campaign groups without explaining its meaning is unhelpful. Baroness Stern argues that:
"it is clear to us that the way the six per cent conviction rate figure has been able to dominate the public discourse on rape, without explanation, analysis and context, has been to the detriment of public understanding and other important outcomes for victims."
The Ministry of Justice has itself accepted many of the points raised by Baroness Stern's report, and after consulting on changes to the way conviction rates are presented to the public last year, has agreed to issue new guidance alongside these figures.
Yvette Cooper is correct to say that only 6% of rape cases end in conviction, but as Baroness Stern explains this figure needs to be carefully understood, as it is not comparable with other conviction rates.
There are many good reasons for highlighting the high attrition rate in rape cases, and when we consider that incidents of rape are also known to be under-reported, the problem could be even larger.
However as the Stern Review points out, if the 6% figure is allowed to "dominate the discourse on rape" without it being properly explained, this could actually damage attempts to raise awareness of the nature and causes of the problem.