6% rape conviction rate needs explanation and context

18 May 2011

With the sensitive debate about rape kicking off once again today following Ken Clarke's comments to Radio 5, David Cameron repeatedly referred to the 6% rape conviction rate at Prime Minister's Questions.

Full Fact would like to offer the following extracted section of the executive summary to Baroness Stern's Independent Review into how Rape Complaints are Handled by Public Authorities In England And Wales for our readers' information.

This selection may help to show why the Review's contribution is worth reading: "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." (Emphasis added).

 

The conviction rate has taken over the debate

Conviction rates for rape are the subject of considerable political and media attention. Much is said about the conviction rate for rape being six per cent in England and Wales. The six per cent figure is widely quoted. We found in carrying out this review that it was known and used by almost everyone in the field. Some have found it helpful as a campaigning tool in arguing for an improvement in the way rape cases are dealt with. Others found it misleading and deeply unhelpful in building confidence in victims and increasing the number of cases reported to the police that could possibly go forward to a prosecution. Many expressed concern at the widespread use of this figure without analysis or explanation.

The way this conviction rate figure is calculated is unusual. Conviction rates are not published or even measured in this way for any other crime so it is very difficult to make a comparison. 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 the term has come to be used in a different way, and describes the percentage of all the cases recorded by the police as a rape that end up with someone being convicted of rape.

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 rape1 (as the term is normally used in relation to crime) is 58 per cent. The confusion arises from mixing up the conviction rate with the process of attrition. 'Attrition' is the process by which a number of the cases of rape initially reported do not proceed, perhaps because the complainant decides not to take the case any further, there is not enough evidence to prosecute, or the case is taken to court and the suspect is acquitted. The attrition rate figure has been the cause of considerable concern, and attempts to reduce it are behind many of the reforms that have been introduced in recent years. Our terms of reference also ask us to look at ways in which it can be further reduced and we have made recommendations to that effect, taking into account the many difficulties that stand in the way of successfully prosecuting cases of rape.

However, 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. Since this is an area of such public interest and debate, and many organisations have an interest in this information and what it means, we feel the presentation of the statistics could be looked at again and we so recommend.

1 These convictions are for rape or another related offence.

Here is a link to the full Independent Review into how Rape Complaints are Handled by Public Authorities In England And Wales.
The Ministry of Justice recently completed a consultation which found there were four separate ways of measuring the rape conviction rates. As our blog on the issue explains, from the summer next year changes in the way conviction rates are measured will be brought in to avoid some of the confusion described above.

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