Northern Ireland courts under spotlight as report reveals only 5% of rape cases see conviction
Only a small fraction of rape cases reported in Northern Ireland result in a conviction, a report has revealed.
Last year, 64 defendants appeared at Crown Court accused of rape, but just 15 were found guilty.
In the same 12 month period, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) received files relating to 415 suspects charged or reported for rape.
While not all the cases will have been dealt with in the same year, it underlines how few cases investigated by police and reported to the prosecution service make it to court, and then result in someone being convicted.
An estimate based on the figures in yesterday's report by the PPS suggests the overall rate of convictions could be under 5% of all cases passed to prosecutors.
The statistical bulletin, covering the 2016/17 year, reveals the PPS received 18% more rape files in that 12 month period - rising from 335 to 395. Some may have related to more than one suspect.
Of the 64 defendants who appeared at the Crown Court accused of rape, just 15 (23.4%) were convicted.
Victim Support NI has expressed concern at the figures, saying improvement is needed.
Other key findings from yesterday's report include:
• The PPS received 1,312 files involving a sexual offence - a rise of 5.4% from 2015/16 (1,245);
• The files include a total of 1,399 suspects - 415 of whom were charged or reported for rape and 984 for other sexual offences;
• Just 36.7% of cases met the test for prosecution - slightly higher than in 2015/16 (33.7%);
• 267 defendants were dealt with by the Crown Court in 2016/17, of which 23.4% were convicted of rape, and 67.4% were convicted of at least one sexual offence;
• 148 defendants were dealt with in the magistrates and youth courts in 2016/17, of which 54.1% were convicted of a sexual offence.
The Department of Justice recently announced that retired judge Sir John Gillen was set to review how sexual violence cases are handled by the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.
Victim Support NI chief executive Geraldine Hanna said her group had heard "serious concerns" from victims about their experience with the system.
"In recent years, we have seen improvements in the way victims of sexual violence are treated by criminal justice agencies, but there is still a considerable way to go," she said.
Ms Hanna also said the group believe there is a "considerable under-reporting of this type of crime". "Victims must know that they will be believed, that they are not alone, that there is support available, and most importantly, that it is not their fault," she added.
"We continue to encourage them to engage with the PSNI and other criminal justice agencies to bring perpetrators of rape and sexual violence to justice."
PPS senior assistant director Marianne O'Kane explained why the conviction rate in rape cases was relatively low.
"Rape is a devastating crime which presents many complexities when seeking to bring a prosecution to court," she said.
"Every rape case is different, but they are all challenging to prosecute. The burden of proof is always on the prosecution to prove such allegations to a jury beyond all reasonable doubt.
"That is a high bar for a jury to reach, particularly when so many of these cases hinge on the issue of consent or the suspect's reasonable belief in consent.
"Although not essential to bring a prosecution, police and prosecutors will look for corroborating or supporting evidence, which is often not available as alleged offences frequently take place in private and the complainant is the only witness.
"Rape conviction rates are historically and universally low across all jurisdictions when compared with sexual offences other than rape and with the conviction rates for offences generally in the Crown Court.
"The PPS has been working with other stakeholders to fully understand the reasons for this and seek to address them."