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Rape victims don't sense justice even on conviction, study finds

22 August 2019

Rape survivors do not get a sense of justice from the Scottish criminal trial system, even when a conviction has resulted, a new study has found.

Researchers from the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, a collaboration between four universities led by the University of Glasgow, report today that the justice process leaves those who have reported a rape or serious sexual assault feeling marginalised and with little control, regardless of their case’s outcome.

For their report, entitled Justice Journeys: Informing policy and practice through lived experience of victim-survivors of rape and serious sexual assault, the team interviewed victim-survivors who have navigated their way through the system to try and understand their "justice journey".

While some positive experiences were identified, such as support provided through advocacy services and sensitivity shown by some specialist criminal justice professionals, victim-survivors also highlighted the lengthy duration of the process, administrative errors and poor communication from the police and courts. Other issues such as the physical environments in which statements are given, the removal and non-return of personal possessions for evidential purposes, and in particular, being subjected to distressing questioning at trial, were also raised as significant points of concern.

In particular, none of the 17 victim-survivors, including those whose cases had resulted in a guilty verdict, believed that justice had been achieved.

Their experiences from the cumulative impacts of the sexual violence and going through the criminal justice process included strained family relationships, and poorer health, including suffering night terrors, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

"Three years of re-traumatisation", "It totally destroyed everything", and "I didn’t know how to live for 18 months", were among the comments received.

The findings suggest there is a considerable gap between how victim-survivors anticipate their case will be treated and the reality of the process. Those questioned felt that the justice system was weighted in favour of the accused and did not adequately represent their interests.

Twenty eight recommendations in the report include:

  • better management of expectations about the criminal justice process;
  • improving where possible the "daunting and sometimes uncomfortable environments that victim-survivors occupy when giving statements, undergoing forensic examination, re-reading their statements, and going to court";
  • the need to have the police statement read and agreed immediately after giving it should be reviewed (e.g. with the option for victim-survivors to review and agree their statement within one week);
  • video recording of police statements to ensure their accuracy, as well as their use in court, "should be strongly considered";
  • consideration should be given as to how victim-survivors can be better prepared for the potentially distressing nature and format of questioning at trial, while maintaining fairness of process;
  • the introduction of independent legal representation should be considered as a means of allowing victim-survivors to be more adequately represented, and less marginal to, the criminal justice process;
  • consideration should be given to a review of the adversarial nature and manner of defence questioning and the role of the court and prosecutor in objecting to questioning that infringes on the complainer's right to dignity and privacy;
  • consideration should be given to a review of the use of sexual history and character evidence at trial.

Dr Oona Brooks-Hay, who co-authored the report with Prof Michele Burman and Dr Lisa Bradley, hoped the findings would lead to a push for real change across the criminal justice system to address the significant concerns raised around how victim-survivors are informed, supported and represented.

She commented: "There is a pressing need to look at how the criminal justice process can be reformed to meet the needs of victim-survivors who have had the courage to engage with the system.

"While our research reveals that some relatively minor practical changes could go a long way to improving experiences, more radical change such as the introduction of independent legal representation in serious sexual offence cases, must be given serious consideration. Sexual offences have profound and distinctive impacts, and therefore merit distinctive responses."

Click here to access the report.

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