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Conviction rates for sex offence trials slump
FEWER sex offence trials are resulting in guilty verdicts, with prosecutors saying they are bringing cases to court that may have previously been dropped.
Figures obtained by the Oxford Mail through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that 24 per cent of sex trials at Oxford Crown Court resulted in convictions last year – the lowest rate in the city for at least six years.
The court saw 37 trials in 2013, but only nine resulted in convictions.
This compared to 41 in 2012, with 21 ending in convictions.
But the number of convictions after trial has fallen across the region, with some areas seeing more of a decrease than Oxford.
In Reading in 2008, there was an 80 per cent conviction rate after trial which fell to 31.7 per cent last year.
And in Swindon the percentage dropped even further from 81.3 per cent in 2008 to 25.9 per cent in 2013.
Thames and Chiltern Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said cases are only taken to court if there was a realistic chance of conviction.
Deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor Helen Draycott said they had worked closely with police to improve the quality of prosecutions in cases involving sexual offences and referred to a specialist Rape and Serious Sexual Offences unit set up last year.
She said one reason the convic-tion rate has fallen across the country is because the CPS is now prosecuting cases that may have been dropped in the past because of concerns juries could be affected by the “myths or stereotypes” surrounding rape and sex cases.
But sex abuse campaigners said the low conviction rates could put victims off reporting crimes.
Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre service manager Natalie Brook said: “Unfortunately it does not send a very good message to women who have experienced sexual violence.
“If the chances of achieving a conviction are so low it is understandable that a woman might think ‘What is the point of coming forward?’”
The conviction rate has also fallen since 2008 when about 66 per cent of sex trials – 27 – in Oxford resulted in guilty verdicts.
A total of 50 defendants pleaded guilty to sex crimes at the court last year, bringing the total number of convictions to 59. But there were also 10 further sex crime cases which were discontinued.
It comes as a report released last month found Thames Valley CPS was one of the worst performing in the country. The CPS Inspectorate highlighted failings that included losing too many trials and bad decision-making.
Marilyn Hawes, of campaign group Enough Abuse UK, said the low conviction rate could be down to police failing to gather enough evidence for prosecutors.
But she said: “It is not helpful and it is not encouraging for people who want to disclose information.
“Something has got to be done about it.
“It creates anger and anxiety for the victims. They have enough going on in their heads anyway.”
Police and crime commissioner Anthony Stansfeld said he was working with the CPS to achieve better conviction rates and the best possible outcomes for victims.
But he said: “We have seen a large number of historical cases recently which are typically more difficult to secure a conviction and cases are being brought to court which in the past might not have been.”
Defence lawyer Lucy Tapper, of Reeds Solicitors, said it was impossible to say why conviction rates were lower in Oxford.
She said only the firm’s most experienced lawyers were picked to handle sex allegation cases, adding: “It is also evident to us that, despite the high levels of emotion that tend to surround cases of this nature, juries in Oxford take their responsibilities very seriously and are only prepared to convict where the evidence leaves them sure of the defendant’s guilt, in accordance with their oath.”
Ms Draycott added: “The number of prosecutions for rape and sexual offences is relatively small compared with other types of offences, such as burglary or theft, so it is not surprising that the conviction rate fluctuates and is not the same at different crown courts. One case may have a disproportionate impact on the data; in one case in 2013, 12 defendants were acquitted after trial.
“If there is no realistic prospect of conviction, the evidential stage is not met and no prosecution can be brought, irrespective of the public interest or the views of the victim.
“Prosecutors must make charging decisions on the basis of a notional jury which is wholly unaffected by any myths or stereotypes.
“Juries are an important and integral safeguard in our judicial system.
“The CPS has worked closely with Thames Valley Police to improve the quality of prosecutions in cases involving sexual offences. Last year, each CPS area set up a Rape and Serious Sexual Offences unit which brings together trained specialists with expertise in dealing with the most serious sexual offences.
“We are committed to increasing public confidence and getting people to report rape and serious sexual offences. We do this by consistently applying CPS policies and good practice in relation to victims; handling the cases professionally, robustly and sensitively; monitoring our performance; and reviewing adverse outcomes and addressing identified failings.”
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