Women, rape and the criminal justice system - Conclusions

Each of the eleven women interviewed for this survey was asked how they felt about their decision to report the crime to the police. Eight felt that they had made the right decision and would do so again, stating that reporting the crime had given them strength, was the right thing to do and was: "something that had to be done, for other people's sake."

Others had mixed feelings. One woman initially did not report the offence because she had been raped before and, having already been through the ordeal of reporting a rape once, felt unwilling to do so again.

Victim Support is aware that most sexual offences are never reported to the police. This survey concentrates on the experiences of those people who chose to report the offence and looks at how this decision has impacted on their lives and affected their recovery. In this section we will run through the various stages in the criminal justice process, comparing the survey findings with the standards of treatment to which Victim Support believes all victims of crime should be entitled.

Information provision

Ten of the eleven women interviewed expressed their concern about the lack of information they received from the official agencies involved in their cases. Some noted that although the police were informative initially, this petered out as the case progressed. The responses show that for these women, Victim Support became a very importance source of information.

The interviewees went on to identify the types of information they would have liked to have received but did not, much of which was of a very basic nature: trial dates; bail decisions; full details of their injuries; information on medical issues (such as HIV); whether or not they could give their evidence from behind a screen; general explanation of legal procedures; the outcome of the case and the offender's release dates.

The questionnaire results complement these findings. They reveal that only 30% of schemes believed that victims were always told that an arrest had been made, and only 15% of schemes said that victims are always told the dates of trials, whereas 32% said that victims were given this information "sometimes". Just over a quarter of schemes said that victims were always informed of the outcome of the trial. The results from the questionnaire show that victims are least likely to be informed of appeal decisions, with only 5% stating that victims are always informed. However, 59% of schemes did not know whether or not victims had been informed of appeal decisions. At present there are no effective systems in place for victims to be informed of the outcome of appeals, with procedures varying widely according to local arrangements.

Lack of information is a constant problem for victims of crime. Victim Support believes that victims should have the right to be kept informed of all the developments relating to their case and should be given clear information to enable them to opt in or opt out of being kept informed at any stage in the case.

In June 1996, the Home Office published the new Victim's charter (Home Office, 1996d). This document sets out the standards of service which victims of crime can expect to receive. Following a pilot scheme, there will be nationwide implementation (expected from April 1997) of a system which will give victims of most serious crimes the chance to be told if a suspect is caught, cautioned or charged, the date of the trial, and the outcome. The Charter also includes a responsibility to keep victims informed of appeals. Victims of rape, in cases where there is a conviction, can also expect to be contacted by the probation service within two months of the sentence and asked whether they wish to be kept informed about the sentence progress and about any anxieties they may have regarding the prisoner's release which can be taken into account when the conditions of release are being considered. A separate pilot scheme will give victims a "voice" for the first time by allowing them to make a written statement about how the crime affected them and will provide the authorities with additional information on which to base their decisions during the management of the case. We hope that the new provisions in the Charter will improve the present situation and that the consistent provision of information to victims becomes a reality.

Reporting the crime

Four of the interviewees felt they were treated very well by the police. Others expressed concerns, including worries about a lack of police sensitivity, that the police were unable to provide them with adequate information or that police investigative procedures were distressing in themselves.

One interviewee found the police were very helpful initially, but feels they lacked accurate information themselves. She believes part of the problem was that there was no one person was responsible for keeping others informed. Six of the interviewees saw the same officers throughout the progress of their cases. One woman, however, was seen by a number of different police officers and feels that this contributed to the scant and confused nature of the information the police were able to provide.

The police play a major role in information provision. The questionnaire results show that a lack of consistent contact with, and information from, the police is the single most common area of concern. These concerns are reflected in the findings of the 1994 British Crime Survey which stated that a third of victims were dissatisfied with the extent to which the police keep them informed (Mirrlees-Black and Budd, 1996). Some schemes gave examples of excellent practice where one designated officer holds responsibility for keeping the victim regularly informed. However, there does not appear to be any central monitoring and procedures vary widely between force areas. We hope that it will be possible for all police forces to implement the standards set out in the Victim's charter 1996.

Protection and fear of repeat attacks

Three of the eleven women interviewed had been harassed or assaulted after they reported the offence to the police. Five others had concerns for their safety. Most felt that they were offered no protection. Their fears were heightened where the defendant had been granted bail, lived locally, had a reputation for violence, or where he knew the woman.

In 1995, 33% of schemes who responded to the survey were in contact with rape victims who were subsequently re-assaulted. It appears that intimidation is most frequently carried out by the friends and family of the defendant. Harassment and re-assaults by the offender are a particular problem where they already know the woman. Threats to women's children were identified as another worrying feature. One scheme reported that a woman included in the questionnaire returns was later murdered by her ex-partner.

We believe that the police should give a priority to the protection of victims during the course of their investigations. This does not happen consistently in practice. Examples of both good and bad practice were given. Many women found the issuing of alarms helpful and police procedures which allowed them to identify their attackers in safety, for example, by the use of one-way mirrors in ID parades. Others, however, felt endangered by police procedures such as having to identify their attackers face to face. Again, there appears to be a lack of consistency across police force areas. We would like to see nationwide adoption of the best practice.

Victim Support believes that where there is reason to believe that a victim or other witnesses may be subjected to further violence, threats or harassment, everything possible should be done to provide protection and reassurance. This is particularly important in cases of rape where many women are known to their attackers. Victim Support would like to see full use made of technology - for example, the provision of personal alarms linked directly to the police station. Additional resources should be made available to enable the wider and more consistent use of these devices.

Bail

Defendants were granted bail in six of the interview cases. The granting of bail was particularly problematic for the women who knew their attacker and/or if they lived nearby. Four of the interviewees were not informed that the defendant had been granted bail until after he had already been released. One woman found out through a report in her local paper and another via a neighbour who spotted the defendant in the street. In the questionnaires, one third of schemes said that victims were "sometimes" informed of bail decisions. This compares with 13% who stated that victims are always kept informed.

The speed by which information on bail decisions is relayed to victims is vital. Victim Support believes that victims should automatically be told of bail decisions, of any conditions attached, and, of what to do if these conditions are breached. The survey results show that this only happens in the minority of cases, with the interviews revealing how this adds to the victim's trauma.

Research carried out for the Home Office in 1994 (Raine and Willson, 1994) looked at the bail decisions in relation to all offences taken at five magistrates courts. The research concluded:

"Most magistrates worked on the assumption that the police enforced bail conditions imposed by the court and that victims/witnesses were informed of them. But the police said that in most areas such enforcement and information provision was low priority except in a few special cases."

The new Victim's charter states that the police should inform victims of bail decisions "as quickly as possible". We would like to have seen information on bail decisions included in the pilot project announced in the Victim's charter. While we recognise the practical difficulties of providing information on bail decisions at the earliest opportunity, a solution needs to be found.

In February 1995, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that victims would be consulted on their views about bail decisions 1. However the questionnaires reveal that only 9% of schemes were aware of this actually happening in practice. It should, however, be noted that the survey period of a year included the three months prior to the Director of Public Prosecution's announcement.

Rape examination suite and doctor

The interviews reveal that seeing a sympathetic female doctor in a specially designed rape examination suite can dramatically improve what is essentially a traumatic experience. The majority of the women interviewed did not have these facilities. All too often no real choice is offered to women; they can ask to see a woman doctor but only if they are prepared to wait for long periods of time. It is suggested that the urgent recruitment of more female doctors would address this issue. One interviewee noted that if she had understood what the medical examination would be like, she would never have reported the rape.

Other sources of help

Information gathered from the interviews and questionnaires shows that for most people Victim Support provided all the necessary support. However, some identified the following areas of need, which fell outside the remit of Victim Support's work:

Criminal Injuries Compensation

Criminal Injuries Compensation is an award paid to people who have been injured by violent crime. The very word "compensation" meant that one interviewee had mixed feelings about making a claim: "I feel it is dirty money."

Evidence from the interviews shows that the length of time it takes to receive a compensation award is a major problem. At the time the interviews took place (January 1996) six women were still waiting for their claims to be processed, some over two years after the offence took place. The delays in the claim makes it harder for them to get on with their lives. By October 1996, five of these women were still waiting. Victim Support hopes that the new tariff system for criminal injuries compensation, introduced in April 1996 under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1995, will be quicker to administer and therefore improve this situation (Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, 1995).

However, Victim Support believes that under the new criminal injuries scheme, the tariff for rape is too low and that there should be separate awards to take into account any additional injuries suffered during the attack. This position is supported by the feelings of insult and dismay expressed by some of the interviewees at the level of award they were granted.

A new problem is that some women are being accused in court of bringing an allegation of rape in order to make a claim for criminal injuries compensation. Victim Support has received a number of complaints of this nature and one of the interviewees was warned by the prosecution barrister that this might happen. This line of questioning by the defence counsel is considered deeply offensive to victims.

One woman found her interview with the Criminal Injures Compensation Board the most upsetting experience of her whole ordeal. She felt that she was not treated with respect and that there was little control over the types of question she was asked. Under the new tariff system appeal procedures should be explained to applicants and panel members should receive victim awareness training. Victim Support welcomes the panel's intention to provide both of these. However, we believe applicants need earlier access to the evidence on which the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has made its decision so that they can be better informed about whether to appeal against the decision and what evidence they need to bring to the hearing. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority needs to ensure that it has all the relevant evidence in each case.

Court dates, delays and adjournments

Nine of the ten interviewees whose cases went to court mentioned problems with a lack of information on, and delays surrounding, trial dates. Often changes to trial dates took place at the last minute with no regard to the needs or feelings of the victim.

When asked to comment on common needs, a third of Witness Services said that fixed dates and fewer delays at court were a priority. The listing and timing of cases is a well-recognised problem, but one to which no adequate solution has been found. Some members suggested that there should be an effective fast tracking system operating for all rape cases. We believe that this issue requires urgent consideration.

Pre-court familiarisation visit

Several of the interviewees were able to look round the Crown Court centre before the day of the trial. These visits were arranged by Victim Support and the Witness Service and are called "pre-court familiarisation visits". They were found to be very helpful, unless the case was then re-scheduled to a different court. Since April 1996, a Witness Service has been operating in each Crown Court centre in England and Wales. Although this means that services are available, the disturbance and upset of cases being moved should not be underestimated.

Security in the court building

The need for separate waiting facilities for witnesses is now generally accepted and is part of the design brief for all new court houses. Provision is made in existing courts where possible. However, there are problems with the layout in some Crown Court centres which means that there is no separate waiting room or waiting areas become overcrowded. The survey results also show that victims face a problem through a lack of secure entrances to court buildings and in the court's public facilities.

Screens in court

Victim Support members believe that victims of rape and sexual assault should be allowed to give their evidence from behind a screen (41% of questionnaire respondents listed this as a priority). This should be agreed in advance of the trial, rather then left to the discretion of the judge in the case and decided on the day of the trial. Of the six interviewees who gave evidence in court, five would have liked to have given their evidence from behind a screen, out of view of the defendant and his supporters. At the moment the use of screens for adult witnesses is very rarely allowed in practice; only one of the interviewees was allowed this protection. She feels that this made an enormous difference to her experience of the trial and states that she would not have been able to give evidence without it. Another interviewee was not allowed to give evidence from behind a screen even though she was only fifteen at the time she gave evidence.

The new Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 makes provision for binding rulings to be made for child witnesses to give evidence by CCTV link or by a video recording. We would like to see the scope of the Act extended to include similar provisions to enable adult witnesses in rape cases to give evidence from behind a screen or by CCTV. Again, decisions should be made at the pre-trial hearing and be binding on the trial judge.

Protection of identity

Since 1993, victims of rape and sexual assault have been guaranteed anonymity under the law. It is an offence to publish the name, address or other details which may identify a victim of rape or other sexual assault. However, both the questionnaire and interview results show that women feel this protection is undermined during the court processes, and that their identity is not protected. Examples include: not being allowed to give evidence from behind a screen; giving evidence in full view of the defendant, their family, friends, the press and public; having their address read out in court or having details of their address revealed through insensitive questioning. Victims living in small communities face a distinct problem, as their identity is often disclosed through local contacts and gossip.

Charges reduced on the day of the trial

In the eleven interviews, two cases were downgraded to a lesser offence on the day of the trial. In each case the woman was asked by the CPS if she would accept a guilty plea to the lesser charge of indecent assault.

Both of these women were asked to make this decision in a very short space of time, just before they were due to give evidence, without any proper support or advice. They were persuaded that by accepting the plea they would be saved from the trauma of giving evidence, as well as allowing them to leave the court building before the defendant and his supporters came out. They believed that the defendant would still receive a custodial sentence. The outcome in each instance was that the defendant only received a fine. They both feel that they made their decision based on inaccurate reassurances from the CPS.

According to the questionnaires, in cases where charges had been downgraded to a lesser offence, under a third of victims were informed of the reasons for this decision.

The new Victim's charter states that if victims wish to be kept informed, they will be told of any decision to drop or substantially alter the charges in their case. We welcome this and look forward to a speedy implementation.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

Seven of the interviewees expressed feelings of dissatisfaction with the CPS and the prosecution barrister in particular. The most common concerns were that the prosecution barrister was distant, the CPS did not provide sufficient information at court or the prosecution barrister did not appear to try hard enough to protect their interests at court. This was felt all the more keenly because the defendants appeared to have such a close relationship with the defence barrister. This fact, combined with a desire for information and guidance on legal issues, exacerbated many of the women's anxieties and feelings of betrayal.

Victim Support believes that, as far as possible, information should be given to victims by the authorities who are responsible for the decision in question. However, in most instances information is provided by the police. The interviews revealed that women would have liked to have received more information direct from the CPS and wanted closer contact with the CPS and prosecution counsel generally.

The Victim's charter states that a CPS representative should introduce themselves to the victim at court. However, contact with the prosecution barrister is not mentioned. Victim Support believes that barristers and solicitors should introduce themselves before court to all the witnesses they intend to call. The Bar Council Code of conduct has been amended to allow barristers to introduce themselves to prosecution witnesses prior to the trial (General Council of the Bar of England and Wales, 1991, as amended).

Judge

Four of the interviewees commented that they were treated sympathetically by the judge. This made an enormous difference to their experience of the trial. However, one woman was distressed to hear that disparaging, inaccurate and damaging remarks were made by the judge, some of which were reported in the local press.

The cross-examination and treatment by the defence barrister

Interviewees described their experiences of the cross examination as: undermining, patronising, insinuating, humiliating, as if they were on trial and worse than the rape.

Victim Support feels that the questioning of victims should be carried out with respect for the dignity of the individual. The Bar Council is the barristers elected representative body which determines standards of professional conduct. The Bar Council Code of conduct states: "A barrister when conducting proceedings at court: ... must not make statements or ask questions which are merely scandalous or intended or calculated to vilify, insult or annoy either a witness or some other person." This very general provision does not protect victims of rape from what they perceive to be a savage cross-examination. The survey results show that many women feel re-victimised by the defence counsel. The system may be particularly traumatic for victims of rape as cases are often based on the testimony of one person taken against another.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 was designed to protect the victim from certain types of questioning. Unless permitted by the judge, rape victims (the section does not extend to victims of sexual assault) cannot be questioned on their past sexual experiences, except in relation to the defendant. However, in practice it appears the judges do frequently allow this type of questioning. Sue Lees, in her research in 1989, points to the failure of this Act and states that it is the woman's reputation which is on trial (Lees, 1996). This conclusion is backed up by the evidence gathered in this survey. Both schemes and Witness Services recommend that there should be further restrictions on defence questioning of the victim's character, especially on their previous sexual history. Release of the victim's past medical history was also raised as a problem. One interviewee described how medical records prior to the offence were obtained and how this felt like a gross invasion of privacy. Victim Support members would like to see the regulation of defence questioning coupled with more frequent interventions by the prosecuting counsel and the judge on the victim's behalf. We believe that there must be a broader discussion on these issues.

Mitigation

Victim Support has received constant complaints that statements made in mitigation are derogatory to victims, are misleading or downright false. For example, one of the interviewees recalls how the defence barrister said that she "had been round the block". Neither the CPS nor the judge objected and this statement was reported in her local paper.

The CPS now have a responsibility to challenge any mitigation plea which it knows to contain unjust or inaccurate information. In practice it seems that this seldom happens. This may be because they have insufficient information to make the challenge. We also hope that the new victim statement (in the Victim's charter) to be piloted within the next few months, will give the victim a chance to explain how the crime has affected them, and will give the CPS information on which to base a challenge to mitigation. New provisions in the Bar Council Code of conduct strictly limit the circumstances in which derogatory mitigation can be made and when the defence must give advance notice.

The Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 gives the courts the power to restrict the reporting of statements made in mitigation, if there are grounds for believing that it is derogatory to a person's character, false or irrelevant to the defence. This new clause should come into effect in 1997. Victim Support welcomes this provision and hopes it will be used to protect victims and witnesses from the publication of distressing and unjust allegations.

Training for criminal justice personnel

Victim Support's Rights of victims of crime policy paper states that all professional personnel who come into contact with victims and witnesses should receive training to make them aware of the most up-to-date information regarding the effects of crime and the potential effects of poor treatment during the criminal justice process.

Some positive training initiatives are in place, with Victim Support frequently contributing to other organisations' training courses. Yet there is little monitoring or national consistency. Improved training on victim awareness, with input from Victim Support and other agencies, came high on the list of recommendations given by questionnaire respondents.

Final remarks

Victim Support believes that the State should assist victims' recovery from the crime as far as possible. It appears from both the questionnaires and the interviews that this rarely happens in practice. In fact, many of the respondents stated that their experience of the criminal justice system has positively hindered their recovery.

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