The crisis engulfing the criminal justice system over its approach to rape cases is revealed by startling figures that show less than a third of prosecutions brought against young men result in a conviction.
According to statistics, men aged 18 to 24 in England and Wales are consistently less likely to be found guilty than older men on trial. Young men accounted for more than a quarter of defendants in rape-only cases in the five years to 2017-18.
The findings are the first in the Guardian’s series focusing on rape, which is consistently one of the most contentious and sensitive issues facing the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Senior CPS staff believe the failure to secure convictions reflects a desperate need to educate jurors, who appear particularly reluctant to punish young men at the start of their adult life for serious sexual assaults.
The figures highlighting the disparities are set out in a freedom of information request released by the CPS to the Labour MP Ann Coffey.
They cover a five-year period and highlight how difficult it is to secure successful prosecutions of men under the age of 25.
According to the figures:
- The conviction rate last year in rape only trials involving 18- to 24-year-old men was 32% – the lowest of any age group. The number of successful prosecutions against men aged 25-59 was much higher – at 46 %.
- In the past five years, the conviction rate for 18- to 24-year-old men who stood trial has not risen above a third. Of the 1,343 rape cases the CPS has taken against young men, only 404 were were convicted – an average of 30%.
- The conviction rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in all rape cases – including those involving child abuse and domestic abuse – stood at 35% in the five years to 2017-18. However, the conviction rate in the same types of cases for men aged 25-59 was significantly higher – 49%.
The figures cast doubt on the ability of juries to provide equal access to justice for all rape complainants, regardless of the age of their alleged attacker, according to experts and campaigners.
Coffey, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, said the figures were a symptom of a much wider problem. “The vast majority of rape victims choose not to report to the police,” she said. “One significant reason for this is fear of not being believed. Everybody should be concerned that young women are not getting access to justice. This brings the whole justice system into disrepute.”
Coffey said the figures suggested a “reluctance on the part of juries to find young men guilty of date rape”.
“This may reflect the prevailing attitudes of society and therefore juries to women, who are often blamed for putting themselves in risky situations,” she said. “Juries seem to view evidence through the lens of stereotypes.
“There is still a dominance of rape myths in our culture, including that a woman who has drunk a lot cannot complain if she ends up being raped or that it is only rape if someone has injuries.”
An intense media focus on the small number of false allegations of rape “perpetuates the public perception that lying about rape is common when in fact the opposite is true”, she added.
Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England and adviser to the Welsh government on violence against women, said the complainants in trials with younger defendants were also likely to be younger.
“Juries are told, rightfully, that you have to find not guilty if you are not sure and the perception is that the younger the victim is are the less believable you are,” he said. “Also, in my experience, juries are more likely to make allowances for a defendant the younger he is, this idea that he may not have known what he was doing at 24, but if he was older than that he does.”
Dr Dominic Willmott from the University of Huddersfield, who has carried out extensive research into jury bias in sexual offence cases, said the figures were shocking but not surprising.
“Scientific research shows us quite clearly that jurors are simply less willing to convict young defendants of rape for fear of the consequences such a ‘rapist’ label will have on their future,” he said.
Wilmott said his research showed jurors regularly believed defendants in this age category were guilty of rape as defined by the law, but were unwilling to convict and label a young man a rapist.
Sarah Green, from the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition, said the figures “showed there is near impunity in this country for young adult men who commit rape. Now we can see that this group of young men are much more likely than defendants who are older to be acquitted. What is going on?
“We urgently need an independent examination of every stage of the police and courts process. And, as a society we need to take a good look at why we make excuses for young men’s behaviour, and why we leave young women and girls to live with the consequences of that.”
A spokesperson for the CPS said the figures for rape convictions underlined “the clear difficulties in prosecuting these cases”, adding: “Rape and serious sexual offences can be some of the most complex cases prosecuted by the CPS. We have worked hard in recent years to improve how we deal with these cases.
“Addressing the low conviction after contest rate in cases involving young defendants represents a challenge for the entire criminal justice system. We are working on a number of different fronts to improve performance in this area.
“This includes early liaison with police prior to making charging decisions, and providing specialist training for prosecutors on consent, myths and stereotypes, and cases involving vulnerable witnesses and young people.”
Figures from the CPS show that just over half reports of rape resulted in a charge in 2016-17. Of the cases that were prosecuted, 42% did not result in a conviction.
According to figures published by the ONS in February, women counted for 88% of rape offences recorded by the police in the previous year.