Understanding rape case loss in the judicial system

February 2007 - February 2013

Project Complete


This Economic and Social Research Council-funded study – and subsequent work by GCU colleagues – into the attrition, or loss, of rape cases in the criminal justice

Professor Lesley McMillan, Crime and Justice Group, Institute for Society and Social Justice Research, studied 408 rapes reported to Sussex police over the period of a year and tracked seven cases through the justice system. She also conducted 85 in-depth interviews with serving police officers, forensic medical staff, crown prosecutors, barristers, judges and victims of rape.

Professor McMillan discovered that 65% of cases were lost – a process known as attrition – at the earliest stages of the justice process, when the victims either withdrew or police decided to take no further action. Only 6 % resulted in conviction.

The research found that police officers use a complicated balance of factors to decide which cases to pursue. These included considering the victim’s mental health, sobriety, articulation of what they’ve experienced and level of compliance with police and investigative procedures, alongside other features of the attack itself such as available corroborating evidence.

Previous research into police attitudes to rape has linked case loss with the notion of ‘real rape’, a more basic concept based on the notion of a victim being assaulted violently by a stranger in a public place.


The findings have been disseminated widely to the policy and practice community in a variety of fields, including those working in the frontline policing of rape and sexual assault and those involved in the judicial process.  

Professor McMillan acted as an expert witness to the ‘Stern Review’, An Independent Review Into How Rape Complaints are Handled by Public Authorities in England and Wales (2010), conducted by Baroness Vivien Stern, who concluded that a focus on conviction rates had left some victims’ needs neglected and stopped some women from coming forward.

Professor McMillan continues to publish papers on the data and supervises Georgia Scott-Brien’s PhD into the policing of rape in Scotland.

Staff Involved

“This research is very useful and should be widely disseminated.”

Baroness Vivien Stern, Author of ‘An Independent Review Into How Rape Complaints are Handled by Public Authorities in England and Wales (2010).