Understanding why rape cases are dropped

Gavel19 January 2012

By Pamela Readhead

Official Home Office statistics show that only six per cent of rape cases reported to the police lead to a conviction. Case loss – or attrition - happens at every stage of the criminal justice process, from an initial complaint to trial. However, ESRC-funded research at Glasgow Caledonian University has shown that most cases collapse at the first hurdle – during the preliminary police inquiry.

"Most attrition occurs because the victim withdraws their complaint or when the police decide that no further action should be taken," says Dr Lesley McMillan, who led the research. "We wanted to identify the factors that influence victims to withdraw and police to drop a case and to find out what kind of files are likely to proceed through the justice system."

The research findings are based on analysis of all the files reported to Sussex police within a calendar year with a total of 408 past cases - including detailed tracking of seven individual cases, observation of trials, and in-depth interviews with over 60 criminal justice personnel and 15 victims of rape.

Sixty-five per cent of the rape cases studied were lost at the earliest stage of the justice process. Only 26 resulted in a conviction. Over a third of victims withdrew at the policing stage, and police decision to take no further action was a significant factor in early case loss.

The study found that the way the police view rape allegations is more complicated than suggested by previous research. “They no longer only see so-called 'real' or 'stereotypical' rapes - which involve strangers, in public places, with higher levels of violence - as 'good cases' to be taken forward,” says Lesley McMillan. “Rather, they think about the likely outcome they will get with a case, and they make this decision based on a combination of features of the victim and features of the incident to decide what are 'good cases'.”

These findings highlight that the 'good case' concept as well as policing practices and decision-making are much more complex than previously thought.

The research also found evidence that commonly believed myths about rape continue to be prevalent in the criminal justice system. "Police officers expressed a wide range of attitudes towards rape allegations. Some thought that 90 per cent of allegations were false, but others believed the figure to be only five per cent," Lesley McMillan explains. "The average estimate was 53 per cent."

The project findings, which identify examples of good practice as well as robust empirical evidence of the case attrition problem and the experience of victims, have had considerable impact on the policing of rape.

The research was included in a strategic assessment of rape conducted by Sussex police, and the findings have contributed to training and support of Sexual Offence Liaison Officers (SOLOs) in Scotland and Sussex. The lead researcher was also an expert witness on victims' experience of the justice process to the Stern Review on the handling of rape complaints by public authorities (2010).

"We hope that our research demonstrates the importance of an effective chain of command which will challenge the negative attitudes and myths that are still prevalent in some parts of the criminal justice system," says Lesley McMillan.