Just one in every ten rape cases making it to court in Northern Ireland
THE challenges of securing rape convictions are "not going to change" a senior prosecutor has warned, as the latest statistics reveal just one in every ten cases makes it to court.
Head of the PPS Serious Crime Unit, Ciaran McQuillan was speaking as figures showed rape conviction rates have fallen from just over 25 per cent in 2016/17 to less than 16 per cent last year - with just eight people found guilty in 2020/21.
The effects of court closures and restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to the stark findings, with courts understood to be operating at `beyond 100 per cent capacity' in order to make up for 20 months of delays.
The number of defendants brought before the crown court to answer charges of serious sexual offences fell last year to just 94.
There are also question marks over victim confidence in the criminal justice system after it emerged the number of files received from police involving rape fell by 11.3 per cent and by four per cent in files submitted for other sexual offences.
There were 608 people "charged or reported" with rape - 14 per cent fewer than than in 2019/20.
Justice committee member Rachel Woods described the figures as "a damming indictment of our criminal justice system in Northern Ireland", which she said is "failing victims and survivors of sexual offences".
"The fact that, in the last year, only one out of every ten cases involving the specific offence of rape resulted in prosecution is an absolute disgrace.
"... The number of rape convictions has more than halved in the last year, from 20 in 2019/20 to just eight in 2020/21."
The Green Party MLA said two years after the Gillen Review of the handling of sexual offences "many of its recommendations remain undelivered" and the statistics "should be a wake-up call for the Justice Minister".
Mr McQuillan told the Irish News the PPS is working with police to improve `file quality' and anticipates a bill going through the assembly will deliver "significant change... in the next 18 months" in the speed of getting cases before the courts.
He said current delays are contributing to "victim attrition", leading to their withdrawal from cases, but acknowledged other issues make improving conviction rates difficult.
"Basically the challenges are not going to change. The amount of digital [phone and other data] material is not going to get any less... There will still be third party medical notes and records with doctor or medical treatment that have to get (analysed). That is not likely to change."
The prosecutor insisted his team are "not complacent", but warned the figures reflect a fall from more than 200 cases going through the courts to "less than 100".
"We recognise there is more to do and are not satisfied with the progress that we have made. There is more to do ad we are working very hard to improve across the board."