LONDON — Thousands of rape and sexual assault victims have been failed by the criminal justice system, according to a British government review released Friday that cited a dramatic fall in convictions in England and Wales in recent years, prompting an apology from government ministers.
In an interview with the BBC, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said that the findings of the review revealed “systemic failings” to deal with complaints made by victims “at all stages of the criminal justice process.”
He added: “The first thing I think I need to say is sorry, it’s not good enough. We’ve got to do a lot better.”
The review, which only covered cases with adult victims but acknowledged that children and young people were also subject to sexual assaults, was commissioned in March 2019 by the Conservative government. The review was intended to address the decline in rape prosecutions, which the Ministry of Justice said fell 59 percent, and convictions, which have dropped by 47 percent, since 2015-2016.
In that period, reported rapes of adults jumped to 43,187 from 24,093, according to Office for National Statistics numbers cited in the report.
But the government estimates that fewer than 20 percent of rape cases are actually reported to the police, and that the number of victims is about 128,000 a year. Of reported cases, which the statistics office said involved women in 84 percent of cases, just 1.6 percent resulted in a person being charged, according to the Home Office.
The report came as Britain grapples with a national reckoning over male violence against women that erupted in March after a police officer was arrested in the killing of a young woman, Sarah Everard. The officer, Wayne Couzens, 48, pleaded guilty to the rape and kidnapping of Ms. Everard this month.
In the report released Friday, Mr. Buckland, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Attorney General Michael Ellis, said they were “deeply ashamed” of the decline in the number of prosecutions for rape cases, and the fact that one in two victims withdrew from rape investigations.
The review also found that the reasons for the decline in cases reaching court are “complex and wide-ranging,” including an “increase in personal digital data being requested, delays in investigative processes, strained relationships between different parts of the criminal justice system, a lack of specialist resources and inconsistent support to victims.”
Emily Hunt, an independent adviser to the review who was herself a victim of rape, said in the report that the low prosecution rate could not be attributed to possible false claims, which government data suggests accounts for up to 3 percent of rape allegations.
Katie Russell, the national spokeswoman for Rape Crisis, a charity that is part of a coalition of women’s groups called End Violence Against Women, welcomed the government’s admission of its own “catastrophic failures.”
However, she said, the drop in prosecutions could not be accounted for by cuts in funding and resources alone, which Mr. Buckland alluded to in his interview with the BBC.
“It’s clear there are wider cultural issues and issues of the actual functioning of the criminal justice system, in relation to rape and sexual offenses,” said Ms. Russell.
The review acknowledged that victims of rape have been treated “poorly.” In some instances, as they were struggling to deal with the psychological toll of reporting their rapes, they were informed that their cases would not be taken any further, sometimes without explanation.
Bonny Turner, a sexual assault activist who has gone public about her experience with an investigation of her 2016 rape allegations, which was dropped by prosecutors because of insufficient evidence, said the report’s findings came as little comfort.
The report did not make any reference to how the government “is going to redress the situation with those of us who have already been failed,” she said. “It’s as if they feel as though they think they can just get away with an apology but no action to back that up.”
The government said in the review that it would push for a “cultural change” in the police and among prosecutors to return the number of rape cases reaching court to “pre-2016 levels.”
The government added that sexual assault investigations would focus on the behavior patterns of accused attackers, and try to avoid undermining the credibility of victims — a failure that was highlighted in the report.
Citing rape victims who felt traumatized by having their phones taken away and examined during investigations, the review said victims would no longer be left without their devices for more than 24 hours.
Vulnerable victims will also be allowed to record video evidence in advance instead of being forced to endure the trauma of giving public testimony during trials.
Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales — an independent adviser to the government — welcomed the ministers’ apologies over what she described as an “abysmal record.”
She said the government had taken too long to confront “what victims have been saying for years,” adding that the review underscored numerous missed opportunities. “Despite its clear limitations, we have to seize this moment if we are to escape this crisis in our justice system. I truly hope this review will drive us forwards. Indeed, it can’t get much worse.”