Rape convictions and myths
Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, highlighted the need to dispel myths surrounding rape Getty

In May, a woman who was raped in 2012 revealed she was told by her lawyer that her body-shaping Spanx underwear was partly to blame for her case being dropped by prosecutors. The woman, who requested anonymity, was told her case would be abandoned in its early stages, "bearing in mind the type of underwear" she wore at the time.

This is just one of many similar cases that have evaded the UK courts, and today has brought more grim evidence of the problem. Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, revealed that after five years of increasing numbers of successful rape prosecutions, the conviction rate has now dropped. Between 2007 and 2008, 58% of cases brought to trial were successfully convicted. In 2011 and 2012, the figure rose to 63%. Now, the number has declined to 60%.

The Crown Prosecution Service has laid out an action plan to boost conviction rates. The key measures include updating the joint police and CPS national rape protocol, the monitoring of police decisions to take no further action in rape cases, and new practical guidance for frontline police officers and prosecutors.

"Myths and stereotypes still pervade throughout society and have the potential to influence jurors too," Saunders said. "We have a part to play in fighting any pre-conceptions through the way we handle and present our cases to those juries."

While Saunders is correct to demand the issue be addressed, her diagnosis of rape investigations being subject to myths and stereotypes is worrying. As evidenced in the Spanx case, myths still pervade the dealing of rape cases. Questions that superfluously undermine the integrity of cases are thrown around, such as: What was she wearing? What was she doing? How was she acting? This is a fundamental problem.

Another major issue is evidence. The police, perhaps having seen the victims and assessed the evidence in rape cases, have been less inclined to contemplate that the individual deserves the protection of the courts. But on more than one occasion, sufficient evidence has been mistakenly ignored at great cost.

Last December, the Met Police took no further action against a violent rapist despite having evidence connecting him to the crime. James Isted, who was eventually jailed for life in February for committing two rapes, was arrested for his first attack in 2011. He was released without charge due to a "lack of evidence" – because his 17-year-old victim was unable to identify him. He went on to attack another woman.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism later revealed that Isted stole the teenager's phone after the first attack. Detectives seized several phones from him after his first arrest, but did not check whether the victim's phone was amongst them. The Met later revealed that they made mistakes, admitting that "a second offence could have been prevented".

If a case does reach court level, something else has prevented further action against rapists. It is debatable that the myths of rape Saunders refers to are embedded in the courts judiciary – which are, by and large, "pale and male". Around 8% of the Court of Appeal judges are women, rising to 23% of district judges.

The debate over whether male and female judges decide cases differently is long-standing. In theory, gender should not make a difference to the number of successful rape prosecutions. It can be argued, however, that a more equal representation could help dispel the myths of sexual violence highlighted by Saunders.

Differences in experiences – and therefore outlook – brought by female judges to the bench would surely enrich judicial decision making. The idea that women may inherently view the law differently on occasion is troubling, and risks making broad generalisations about female judges, but it is possible that greater equality could boost conviction rates.

"While we are never going to be able to isolate the precise impact of gender in any judgment, there are cases where the gender of the judge does appear to have influenced their judgment," said Professor Erika Rackley of Durham University's Law School, as part of BBC Radio 4's Law in Action study last year.

Saunders has done well to make the problem of conviction rates clear. Rape victims must be given the same chance to justice as those who experience and suffer other violent crimes. There must be more attention given to hard evidence and a greater representation of women in the justice system, as well as a more transparent monitoring of the police and an overall need to understand rape better.