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Is the criminal justice system failing rape victims?

Is the criminal justice system failing rape victims?

Savannah Taylor


Reading time: four minutes

Rape victims are turning to the civil courts for prosecutions.

Recent news has stated that, with criminal prosecutions being at an all-time low, some rape victims are turning to the civil courts to deal with rape cases instead of the criminal courts.

In 2021, the prosecution rate for rape was just 1.5%, an extremely low figure, showing the lack of support that rape victims received in their cases from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The lack of prosecutions can be very distressing for rape victims, especially when they have reported it to the police. Still the CPS has dismissed a potential case based on a lack of sufficient evidence, but it may also be due to backlogs in the system.

Read this LCN Blog to find out the impact of legal aid cuts: ‘Legal aid reforms 2022 – are they enough?’.

Rape victims should not have to turn to the civil courts for justice at the expense of the failings of the CPS and criminal justice system.

There are a few issues with prosecuting a rape case with the civil courts for both defendants and victims.

The standard of proof

The standard of proof is much lower in the civil courts than in the criminal courts. In the civil courts, the standard of proof is based on a balance of probabilities, with a 51% chance or higher sufficient to prosecute a defendant. Whereas in the criminal court, the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, placing a much higher threshold. This means that, in the civil courts, there is a much lower standard of proof needed to convict the defendant.

This could be harmful to the defendant as it could lead to possible wrongful convictions, where the defendant will have to pay a large amount of damages to the victim that they may not be able to afford.

Costly process in civil courts

Another issue is that the process in the civil courts will be costly for victims due to high court fees and may not provide sufficient justice. Rape victims tend to be heavily traumatised by what happened to them. Reporting to the police and having a trial can be very distressing, but many want to gain justice against the defendant who harmed them.

In the civil courts, a guilty defendant will have to pay financial damages to the victim, but I question whether this will be enough for some victims? Some traumatised victims may feel safer knowing that the person who harmed them will be imprisoned, unable to harm any others in the same way – that might be true justice to them.  

Is the criminal justice system failing victims?

Many would view the extremely low prosecution rate of rape allegations as the criminal justice system failing victims. But the CPS defends themselves by stating that their policies haven’t changed, and they always seek to prosecute if there is enough evidence – saying that lack of evidence explains the low prosecution rate. 

However, is this really the case? It could be argued that the criminal justice system already takes a long time to complete the conviction process – with an average time of 145 days from the first submission to the police to the CPS decision to charge. This long wait time can be distressing to victims and might make cases harder to prove with evidence potentially weakening over time.

The covid-19 pandemic has also caused a greater backlog in the criminal justice system, seeing a fall in the number of rape prosecutions, meaning more victims' cases are being dismissed, causing greater distress and injustices. However, the CPS argue that the trend in cases is recovering, and prosecutions are rising again.

Read this LCN Blog to find out more about the backlog of cases during the pandemic: ‘Nightingale courts: a cry for help from the court system?

Should rape victims be turning to the civil courts?

Rape is a criminal offence and should be dealt with by the criminal courts. Although some rape victims have turned to the civil courts to gain some justice, this should not have to be the case due to the lack of support from the criminal justice system.

Turning to the civil courts for rape convictions raises some issues – both financially and in terms of acquiring justice for the crime committed. Are financial damages enough justice for a traumatised rape victim?

The CPS has stated that their procedures are the same, and despite backlogs due to the pandemic, prosecutions are rising again. But, as victims turn to the civil courts instead, the criminal justice system appears to be failing victims.