Dr Olivia Smith, a Criminology and Social Policy expert in Loughborough University’s School of Social Sciences and Humanities, hopes her research findings will raise awareness and lead to positive changes across the UK, specifically the introduction of a national system of legal advocacy for sexual offence victims.
The report, titled ‘Evaluation of the Sexual Violence Complainants’ Advocate Scheme’, contains the findings of an online survey undertaken by 586 victims of sexual offences in England and Wales (233 reported to the police and 353 did not).
The victim survey data revealed that the current situation is untenable. Most victims that reported offences said they were treated sensitively by the police at the point of reporting, but the rest of the process was insensitive and unfair.
The survey found:
- Only 12% of victims feel that police investigations are fair and proportionate
- 77% feel that victims are regularly cross-examined on their medical and sexual history (only 5% disagreed with this statement)
- Only 1 in 5 (21%) felt the criminal justice system treats victims with dignity
- Only 1 in 5 (21%) were satisfied with their criminal justice experience
- The survey reveals that only 12% of victims feel that police investigations are fair and proportionate.
Victims who did not report told Dr Smith and the research team, which comprised of Ellen Daly, a PhD student at Loughborough University, and Cath Easton, an independent researcher, about their fear of intrusive and victim-blaming evidence and those that did report confirmed in some instances this was the case.
One victim, who reported in 2017 and whose perpetrator was acquitted at trial, said: “My sexuality was used against me, naked photos of me were shown to the court, his barrister even said to the jury he had just made a 'mistake' and that he could be any of their sons, or brothers.”
Actors bring to life the comments that victims of sexual offences told the researchers. Campaign film directed by Sheila Nortley.
Victims also revealed the impact of the criminal justice system on their mental health and many victims stated they would not report again.
“It was the right decision to take this man off of the streets - but the question asked about me personally”, said one victim, who reported in 2014 and the perpetrator pleaded guilty.
“This has ruined my life, and my experience of the criminal justice system only made it worse. I feel angry and isolated, years later.”
In addition, the survey found that getting a conviction did not necessarily mean victims were satisfied with the process. One victim stated: “The outcome was not worth what I put myself through”.
The report was commissioned by Kim McGuinness and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, which developed the Sexual Violence Complainants’ Advocate [SVCA] scheme.
As part of the research, Dr Smith examined the pilot scheme, which ran from 2018 until March this year, and found it improved victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system by offering free and independent legal advocacy.
Currently, victims in England and Wales have no right to legal support and occasionally rely on charities if they need help understanding the complicated rules around their rights.
Dr Smith is now campaigning for an amendment to the Government’s Victims of Crime Bill, which will have a second reading in Spring 2021, to add in legal advocacy for serious sexual offence victims.
The change will allow victims to have free access to a lawyer who can advise and represent them at important points in the criminal justice process.
Of the report and what she hopes it will achieve, Dr Smith said: “Around one in four women will be raped in England and Wales, but only around 17% will ever tell the police, and of those who do report, less than 2% will currently end in a conviction.
“Our research shows the huge emotional cost of reporting to police, and we need to find a way to change this. The changes that are needed are wide-reaching and must tackle, for example, racism and homophobia in the criminal justice system.
“One of the many changes should be the provision of legal advocacy, as it’s shown to work, and England and Wales are in danger of falling behind the rest of the world in how we treat rape victims.
“This is about more than conviction rates. It is about dignified treatment regardless of outcome.”
Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness, commented: “The Government needs to do the right thing by sexual violence and abuse victims and a scheme like this would be a good start.
“Roll this out for just £3.9m a year, treat victims with respect and help solve a national crisis and improve conviction rates. This cost is just a drop in the ocean when you factor in the savings that could be made on health and employment.
“It’s clear we need a change in how our criminal justice system responds to sexual offences. Quite simply a system that doesn’t meet the needs of a victim is a system that will allow offenders to get away with their actions and walk the streets. This scheme could really shake-up the system, improving lives and preventing further crime.”
The full report can be found here. It will be shared with the Criminal Justice Board and key MPs and Peers.
For more information on the research and campaign visit www.needisclear.org. The website also features resources for members of the public wishing to take action and support the call for legal advocacy.
If you are a Loughborough university student who needs support you can access emotional and practical help, ask the university to take disciplinary action or report anonymously through the online incident reporting portal here.