Should police inform a suspect they've been charged with rape by post?
I think most of us would expect that kind of news to be delivered in person not in a letter.
But the Ministry of Justice has just revealed that almost 30,000 people facing charges of rape or other sexual offences were informed by 'postal requisition', the official term that's used.
The figures, following a parliamentary question from Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough, show that between January 2014 and the end of March 2023, 6,402 suspects facing rape allegations in England and Wales and 22,173 people accused of other sexual crimes were sent letters setting out the charges and when they had to attend court.
The numbers were particularly high in the two years worst affected by the Covid pandemic, 2020 and 2021, when restrictions were placed on travel and gatherings, but the upward trend was established well before that.
In 2014, 256 alleged rapists were sent postal requisitions; by 2019 the number had climbed to 840. Similarly, in 2014, there were 877 such letters sent to those facing charges for other sexual offences. By 2019, that number had risen to 3,543.
This steep rise can't be explained by an increase in the overall volume of prosecutions for rape or other sexual offences - the numbers were going in the other direction for most of that period - so what is the reason?
It may be that rather than being charged while in custody, following questioning, more suspects are being charged after being released on police bail or under investigation. The growing complexity of sexual offence cases, with increasing amounts of digital material to examine, has certainly contributed to investigative delays, while the rules around police bail changed in 2017. But it is hard to see how that could account for the near-trebling in the number of rape postal requisitions between 2014 and 2022, when 743 such letters were sent.
Another possibility is that, like with less serious crimes, dealing with cases by post is just easier for police and prosecutors. There are fewer police stations for suspects to attend and, until this year, there were fewer officers.
Penelope Gibbs, Director of Transform Justice, has written about the dangers of relying on "snail mail" - particularly in relation to suspects not turning up at court when they are meant to. She found that in 2018, 9 per cent of suspects summonsed by post to appear before magistrates did not turn up for their court appearance, resulting in over 31,000 aborted court hearings and a huge amount of wasted time processing warrants to arrest the missing defendants. In contrast, there was a 6 per cent failure rate among those charged in person.
Gibbs believes that text messages, emails or phone calls should be used instead of Royal Mail. "In some cases, the defendants are homeless, some have moved home, and some post gets lost in blocks of flats and hostels. So many postal charges may not actually be received by the defendant. And then even if they do receive the notice they may lose or ignore it. They shouldn’t, but they do, particularly if they lead a chaotic life, have learning difficulties or mental health problems," she wrote.
Electronic communication may suffice for minor offences, but it's not right that messages about serious criminal charges, such as rape, are sent that way. They should be delivered face-to-face, directly to the person involved, in an official setting - a police station or prosecutor's office. The details of the alleged crime and of the court appearance that follows can then be handed over in writing without any risk that the information will be lost or misunderstood. Copies should also be sent by email.
Postal requisitions may have their place; but these figures suggest they are being misused. If the purpose is to save money, it's a false economy - and is disrespectful to the victims, and those accused, of such grave crimes.