Female Rape—An Ongoing Concern: Strategies for Improving Reporting and Conviction Levels

Published date01 February 2007
Date01 February 2007
Subject MatterArticle
Female Rape—an Ongoing
Concern: Strategies for Improving
Reporting and Conviction Levels
Carol Withey*
Abstract This article examines the reasons behind the low rate of reported
female rape, the failure of rape cases to progress to trial and the unaccept-
able low conviction rate. There is a multitude of research in this area and
the aim of this article is to consolidate this research rather than provide
new research on the issues. Following this, the measures that have been
introduced to improve reporting and conviction rates are identif‌ied and
explained. These range from substantive and evidential changes in the
law, through to the implementation of practical policy. The article assesses
the impact and effectiveness of these measures on the relevant rates, by
drawing on the available Law Commission, Home Off‌ice and academic
research. Current suggestions and strategies for increasing the relevant
rates are then examined. The article concludes with the author’s own
suggestions for improvement.
1. The statistics
Rape convictions are traditionally low. One reason is the low rate of
reported rape, although levels have risen over the last 25 years. Factors
affecting this increase include the higher media prof‌ile accorded to the
offence in programmes such as Crime Watch, through to changes in the
law which have increased the number of potential victims. In R v R1it
was held that a man could rape his wife and s. 142 of the Criminal
Justice and Public Order Act 1994 made it possible for a man to rape a
The f‌igures in Table 1 below illustrate an improvement in reporting
rates but are less impressive when the actual level of rape is considered.
According to Painter225 per cent of 1,007 women interviewed in seven
northern England cities said they had experienced rape or attempted
rape at least once in their lives. The British Crime Survey (BCS) 2000
indicates that in 1999 61,000 women were raped in England and Wales
and that an estimated 754,000 women have been raped on at least one
occasion since age 16.3Figures from the BCS 2001 suggest that in the
year prior to interview there were 47,000 rapes of women over 16 years
* Lecturer in criminal law, University of Greenwich, Maritime Greenwich Campus,
Old Naval College, Park Row, Greenwich, London; Lecturer in Criminal Law and
the Law of Evidence, International Center for Legal Studies , USA; e-mail: carol-
1 [1991] 1 AC 599.
2 K. Painter, Wife Rape, Marriage and the Law: Survey Report, Key Findings and
Recommendations, (Manchester University, Department of Social Policy and Social
Work: 1991).
3 A. Myhill and J. Allen, Rape and Sexual Assault of Women: The Extent and Nature of
the Problem: Findings from the British Crime Survey 2000, Home Off‌ice Research Study
237 (2002).
of age.9These f‌igures may differ because of changes to the offence of
rape and differences in methodology,10 but even the most liberal f‌igure
is alarming.
The low level of reported rape is matched by a low conviction rate in
those cases that progress to trial (see Table 2).
The drop in conviction rates as a percentage of reported rape has been
affected by the increase in reporting levels. Convictions for rape have
slightly increased, but in view of the estimated level of rape, the convic-
tion rate remains horrendously low. The UK has one of the lowest
conviction rates for rape in Europe.14
The ideal objective is to reduce the amount of rape. Measures have
been taken to prevent convicted rapists from reoffending. Under
4 B. Toner, Inside a Rape Trial, Guardian, 22 June 2006.
5 L Kelly, J. Lovett and L. Regan, A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in Reported Rape
Cases, Home Off‌ice Research Study 293 (Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit
(CWASU): London Metropolitan University, February 2005).
6 Ibid.
7 Research Development and Statistics (CRCSG), quoted on Rape Crisis website
www.rapecrisis.org.uk, accessed 16 December 2006.
8 Ibid.
9 S. Walby and J. Allen, Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking:Findings from the British
Crime Survey 2001, Home Off‌ice Research Study 276 (2004).
10 Above n. 5.
11 Above n. 4.
12 Above n. 5.
13 Ibid.
14 L. Regan and L. Kelly, Rape: Still a Forgotten IssueBrief‌ing Document for
Strengthening the LinkagesConsolidating the European Network Project (CWASU:
London Metropolitan University, September 2003).
Table 1. Statistics on reported rape
Source Year of
Number of female reported
rapes England and Wales
B. Toner41980 1,225
Home Off‌ice Research Study 200552001 9,449
Home Off‌ice Research Study 200562002 11,766
Home Off‌ice research7200304 12,354
Home Off‌ice research8200405 13,322
Table 2. Statistics on female rape convictions
Source Year of
and guilty
Convictions as
% of total
reported rapes
Toner11 1980 1,225 416 34%
Home Off‌ice Research
Study 200512
2001 9,449 572 6.05%
Home Off‌ice Research
Study 200513
2002 11,766 655 5.6%
Female Rapean Ongoing Concern
ss 104113 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 the court has the power to
impose a sexual offences prevention order where this is necessary to
protect the public. However, as the estimated level of rape remains high,
the emphasis has been on improving the conviction rate by introducing
measures to increase the level of reported rape, increase the amount of
cases progressing to trial, and increase the likelihood of conviction or a
guilty plea at trial.
2. Reasons for the low reporting, progression and
conviction rates and measures adopted to tackle the
Reasons for the low rate of reported rape progressing to trial and
measures adopted to improve it
Various research studies have explored why women do not report rape.
One reason is fear of being labelled a false accuser.15 This is unsurprising
given the media coverage on this issue. Women against rape (WAR)
conducted a survey16 and found that out of 145 women who had been
raped, 79 per cent did not report their ordeal because they felt that the
police would be unsympathetic or unhelpful and 31 per cent were too
traumatised to face interrogation.
Many women do not report marital rape, one of the most common
types of rape. In one survey 14 per cent of the 1,007 married women
interviewed said that they had been raped by their husbands.17 In the
WAR survey all 60 of those raped by a husband, boyfriend, family
member, or someone in authority, failed to report the rape. One reason
for this could be that women do not deem non-consensual intercourse
within the marital home to be rape at all. Out of an estimated 50 who
were raped by a friend acquaintance or workmate, only two reported
the rape.18
Temkin identif‌ies other reasons for failing to report rape to be feelings
of shame and humiliation, self-blame, the desire to keep the ordeal
private and fear of retaliation.19
Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) have now been introduced.
These are one-stop locations where victims of sexual assault can receive
medical care and counselling, and have the opportunity to assist the
police investigation into alleged offences. At present there are 14 SARCs
in England and Wales. It was hoped that SARCs would help to en-
courage women to report rape.
Rape is a crime almost always committed in private. Often there is a
lack of forensic evidence and evidence can quickly disappear. Section 83
of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 includes a notif‌ication requirement for
those who have committed rape. Within three days of receiving a
15 J. Temkin, Rape and the Legal Process (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002) 7.
16 R. E. Hall, Ask Any Woman: A London Inquiry into Rape and Sexual Assault (Falling
Wall Press: Bristol, 1985).
17 Painter, above n. 2.
18 Hall, above n. 16 at 10813.
19 Above n. 15 at 18.
The Journal of Criminal Law

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