Rapists in short trousers

Yesterday’s conviction of two boys, both aged ten, for the crime of attempted rape raises once more the knotty issue of rape statistics.

Without attending court and listening to the evidence it is impossible to judge whether the evidence was sufficient to justify the verdict. Campaigners who argue that too few complaints of rape end in convictions can strike it up as a victory. Others may suspect that in children this young the charge should not have been brought, and certainly not in the Old Bailey.

The UK has a very low age of criminal responsibility – 10. In Belgium it is 18, while it is 12 in Holland, 13 in France, 14 in Italy, 15 in Norway and 16 in Spain. There have been calls to increase the age to 12 in the UK, but the Ministry of Justice insists it is “not in the interests of justice” to change the law.

The two boys were cleared of rape after the victim, eight at the time of the attack, gave contradictory evidence to the court – first claiming rape and then denying it - but were convicted on a majority verdict of attempted rape. Had an adult given such questionable evidence, the case would have been thrown out, but the judge chose to allow the jury to reach a verdict.

The suspicion must be that the Crown Prosecution Service was influenced in bringing the case because of the campaigns claiming that the rape conviction rate in the UK is the lowest in Europe. Yet as Baroness Stern has recently complained to the UK Statistics Authority, the data to support this conclusion don’t really exist.

She recently completed a review, commissioned by Harriet Harman and the Government Equalities Office under the last government, into the issues surrounding rape.

In her report she complained that the debate had become dominated by the oft-repeated claim that only 6 per cent of rape complaints end in convictions. The 6 per cent figure had come to dominate public discussion “without explanation, analysis or context”, the report said, to the detriment of public understanding. It was not in the interest of victims of rape, who may be discouraged from reporting the incident in the belief that there is no chance of a successful conviction.  “We feel that the presentation of the statistics should be looked at again and we so recommend” the review concludes.

Lady Stern has not given up the chase. In a letter to Sir Michael Scholar, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, she says: “The first difficulty was to find the statistics at all. Some of the figures were collected for management purposes, and some for other purposes and they covered different time periods.

“We found that Government publications used the term conviction rate for all crimes except rape in a way it is normally used but for rape a different definition of the conviction rate appeared in some documents. The controversy about the definition of the conviction rate and what the conviction rate actually is has clouded the more important issue of how to deal with rape in the criminal justice process.”

Lady Stern was seeking a meeting with Sir Michael to discuss the issue, but he parried the suggestion, saying that the National Statistician had already raised it with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice,and the latter had already agreed to review its range of criminal justice publications. He suggested that she should meet the National Statistician when the outcome of these discussions was known.

In the absence of reliable figures, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson risked stirring even greater alarm over rape by announcing at a meeting of the police authority in February that the number of reported rapes in London had risen by 29 per cent between April 1 2009 and the end of January 2010. The police force in London has been criticised for bungling the investigation of several serial rapists.

But is is typical of the way that rape figures are bandied around that Sir Paul would feel free to make public an unaudited figure covering a 10-month period, muddying waters that are already quite muddy enough. “We have no evidence of an increase in actual offences but we would be stupid and complacent to rule that out and we need to look at it in detail” he said.

The new coalition government has said that it will extend to those accused of rape the same anonymity granted to their accusers, on the grounds that false accusations can be seriously damaging to those accused. But nobody actually knows how many accusations are false. Research has suggested fewer than 10 per cent, but there are other cases (up to 20 per cent) which are not proceeded with because of a lack of evidence of injury, where there may be suspicions of false accusation. Lady Stern refused to recommend any change in the rules until more research was carried out into the scale of false accusations.

Cross-border studies show a straightforward inverse correlation: the more rapes are reported, the lower the proportion that result in convictions. Sweden, which has by far the highest reporting rate in Western Europe (twice that of England and Wales) has a conviction rate of just 10 per cent, higher that that of England and Wales (6 or 7 per cent, depending upon how it is measured) but not dramatically so.

The graph below comes from a study by  Jo Lovett and Liz Kelly of London Metropolitan University and shows the link beteween high reporting levels and low conviction rates. In some countries there are more convictions than there are reports, explained  by the fact that complaints may be made to prosecutors as well as to police, time-lags between complaints and prosecutions, and other methodological difficulties.

The cases most likely to end in conviction are “classic” rapes - committed by strangers, outside and involving weapons, according to the study. Rapes involving partners or ex-partners are far less likely to result in conviction, which is hardly surprising. Is this because the police do not try hard enough and are unsympathetic to women making the allegations, as Liz Kelly argues, or simply a result of the difficulty of proving the case when the supposed offender denies it?
The pressure to increase the conviction rate, in the absence of real understanding of why it is low, can have damaging consequences. This week’s conviction of two boys not old enough to be out of short trousers could well be among them.