August 1, 2021 14:03

‘Damning statistics’ support rape survivors’ view of a failing system, says new report

Fears of not being believed, insensitive police officers and poor communication throughout the investigation process are just some of the issues that need to be addressed if survivors of rape are to feel “the state is on their side”, a new report with a catalogue of “damning statistics” concludes.

The Government review was ordered after statistics revealed the number of rape complaints resulting in a charge was at a record low and the proportion of rape complainants withdrawing their support for a prosecution was at an all-time high.

Radical cultural transformation across the criminal justice system must result from the Government’s ongoing end-to-end review of rape, as currently survivors believe the system is bound to fail “and worse still, do so in a way that revictimises them”, according to research by Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC.

She conducted her survey this summer as the Government’s review team took “the surprising decision not to seek the views of those who really matter – rape survivors. As Victims’ Commissioner, I believed it was imperative that the victims’ voice be heard.” She placed a questionnaire on her website and received almost 500 responses which, she said “did not make comfortable reading”.

The Government review was ordered after statistics revealed the number of rape complaints resulting in a charge was at a record low and the proportion of rape complainants withdrawing their support for a prosecution was at an all-time high.

‘Devastating’ findings

Of more than 55,000 reports of rape in both 2018/19 and 2019/20, only 1.4% were charged, and the proportion of victims who withdrew their support for their case has risen from 25% in 2015/16 to 41% in 2019/20. In 2019/20 rape convictions were the lowest on record.

Dame Vera’s research indicated just 14% of respondents agreed that ‘survivors of rape and sexual offences can get justice by reporting an incident to the police’. A full 75% actively disagreed.

Talking about the report – Rape Survivors and the Criminal Justice System, which was published last month – Dame Vera said: “Survivors want to be treated sensitively, fairly, respectfully, to be believed, but also for criminal justice system professionals to better understand trauma, provide clear and timely information, and to offer better access to support services. And on all of these fronts, the justice system has been found wanting.”

The damning statistic that only 14% of respondents believe it’s possible for victims to get justice by reporting sexual offences to the police reflects the chronic failures of our system and the re-traumatisation it so often causes.”

Katie Russell, Rape Crisis

Survivors’ charity Rape Crisis England & Wales described the findings as “devastating” but not surprising.

“The damning statistic that only 14% of respondents believe it’s possible for victims to get justice by reporting sexual offences to the police reflects the chronic failures of our system and the re-traumatisation it so often causes,” said national spokesperson Katie Russell.

A total of 95% of survivors who didn’t report a rape said a key reason was their fear of not being believed, and less than half who did (48%) felt they were treated with sensitivity by police officers. ‘Among those who chose to put the offence on record only (for reasons such as protecting future survivors) and those who actively withdrew from the process, there was a sense of fearing being disbelieved or judged, as well as anticipatory concerns about the low chances of success,’ the report noted.

Many survivors described incidents of rude and inappropriate behaviour by officers involved in their investigation. One woman said officers made her feel the assault was her fault and refused to proceed with the case, prompting repeated calls from officers encouraging her to review her decision. ‘It seems that not even the police understand that no means no,’ she wrote in her survey response.

In other ‘concerning accounts,’ survivors referred to officers laughing at them, being unprofessional, rude, shouting at them or ignoring them. One even said: ‘I hate the police more than that child grooming rapist’.

‘Frequently devastating’

Survivors’ accounts were ‘peppered with language which expressed that the system re-victimised them’, said Dame Vera, who said the ‘unity of views was compelling’. The police decision to take no further action and the CPS decision not to prosecute were ‘frequently devastating’.

During the police investigation, 82% of survivors said there were long periods where they heard nothing at all, 70% said they had to chase for information from officers.

Survivors’ responses revealed ‘clear evidence about the need for better communication at every stage of the criminal justice process’. During the police investigation, 82% of survivors said there were long periods where they heard nothing at all, 70% said they had to chase for information from officers, and only 25% said that they were given all the information they needed about the police investigation.

And when survivors were given information by the police, fewer than half said the information was easy to understand. In court, ‘well under half’ agreed they were given all the information they needed about what would happen during the process.

Where complaints were concluded as ‘no further action,’ only a third of respondents felt they were told this clearly and promptly: ‘The decision felt devastating to many survivors and some used language implying re-traumatisation by the system. For example, one wrote of feeling ‘broken, disgusted and traumatised’,’ said the report.

Positive aspects

Despite the overwhelmingly negative picture painted by the report, police officers can, however, build on some positive aspects of investigations highlighted by the sample group of survivors. More recent reports of rape were treated sensitively, their evidence suggests, with 54% of those who reported in 2018 or after agreeing they were ‘treated with sensitivity, respect and fairness’.

Only 10% of those who had an ISVA or support service chose not to pursue their case, compared with 20% of victims who had neither. Officers have been urged to offer better access to such services in a bid to overhaul the negative perception of the CJS in rape cases.

The report also referred to praise given by survivors to the work of Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs) as ‘the only bright spot of the research’. Their work, alongside other support services, it seems, is ‘highly valued’ and the research shows them making a real contribution to the criminal justice system overall; only 10% of those who had an ISVA or support service chose not to pursue their case, compared with 20% of victims who had neither. Officers have been urged to offer better access to such services in a bid to overhaul the negative perception of the CJS in rape cases.

Ms Russell explained that the fact the overwhelming majority of those who chose not to report to the police took that decision because they didn’t think they’d be believed “chimes with what victims and survivors tell us at rape crisis centres across England and Wales.”

She added: “The report highlights the vitally important and positive difference the support of specialist sexual violence and abuse services – including counselling and ISVAs – can make to victims’ and survivors’ experiences and lives.

“This research reinforces and adds to a wealth of evidence that radical, urgent action is long overdue. Nothing short of cultural and systemic shift will do if we are to deliver the criminal and social justice for victims and survivors of these serious crimes that they so need, want and deserve.”

Writing in the report, Dame Vera quoted former Prime Minister Theresa May who, when she launched the Government’s Victims Strategy in 2018, emphasised that the trauma of being a victim of crime ‘must never be compounded by an individual’s experience of the criminal justice system… all victims of crime have a right to know that the state is on their side.’

‘On this evidence, these laudable intentions have not begun to be realised for rape survivors,’ warned Dame Vera. ‘To them the criminal justice system is bound to fail and, worse still, to do so in a way that re-victimises them. If survivors of this deeply damaging and highly prevalent crime are to feel that ‘the state is on their side’, the Government’s end-to-end rape review must produce radical cultural transformation across the criminal justice system.’

She pointed to the repeated mention of gaps identified by survivors in her survey between what should happen and what did happen in practice. ‘Addressing as many as possible of these important survivor needs will help close the all-important gap between what should happen and what often does not happen in the criminal justice system’s response to rape,’ she concluded.

The post ‘Damning statistics’ support rape survivors’ view of a failing system, says new report appeared first on Policing Insight.

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