In Britain, Rape Cases Seldom Result in a Conviction

In England and Wales, only 5.7% of reported rape cases result in a conviction. Women's rights groups say this stems from a "blame the victim" culture and perpetuates the cycle of repeat offenders. Video by Mary Jordan/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 29, 2008

LONDON -- After Linda Davies reported to police that her 15-year-old daughter had been raped, it took three months -- plus two dozen phone calls and a threat of legal action -- before police questioned the suspect, a 28-year-old neighbor.

"I gave police his name, address, mobile phone number, car registration -- everything but his passport," said Davies, 44, a strong-minded mother of two daughters. "I was basically begging them. He lived five minutes away from us."

The suspect was finally arrested but acquitted at a trial in which the judge told the jury that he was "in a way a man of good character" because his previous criminal convictions, for possession of stolen goods and marijuana, did not involve violence.

Davies was furious at the judge, who also instructed the jurors to ignore the victim's young age, and at police, who lost cellphone records that contradicted the defendant's account.

"This has shattered us," Davies said. "We felt like the whole system was against us."

Davies said she was stunned to learn that her daughter's case was the rule, not the exception. According to government statistics, only 5.7 percent of rapes officially recorded by police in England and Wales end in a conviction.

"What are they saying?" Davies asked. "That 95 percent of women that come forward are telling lies?"

In Britain, a nation whose justice system has been used as a model around the globe, government officials and women's rights activists agree that rape goes largely unpunished.

Solicitor General Vera Baird, who oversees criminal prosecutions in England, estimated that 10 to 20 percent of rapes are brought to authorities' attention. According to government figures, 14,000 cases a year are reported and 19 out of 20 defendants walk free.

"There will never be proper female equality and appropriate dignity afforded to one-half of the population if it's possible to rape somebody and get away with it," said Baird, one of the highest-ranking women in the British government.

Thousands of victims each year once chose not to go to police because of shame, women's advocates say. Now, the advocates say, the bigger reason is that rape victims feel the system is stacked against them.

A 2005 report commissioned by the police found a "culture of skepticism" in the justice system when it came to rape cases, and recommended shifting the focus from seeking reasons not to believe the accuser to gathering evidence to support the charge.

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