Women, rape and the criminal justice system - Introduction to Victim Support and our work with victims of sexual violence

Victim Support

Victim Support is the national charity which offers help to over one million victims of crime every year. Staff and volunteers, based in 378 local schemes, offer information, practical assistance and emotional support to people who have become the victims of crime. Victim Support's Crown Court Witness Service, now operating in every Crown Court centre in England and Wales, offers information and support to victims, witnesses and their families attending trials.

Victim Support also works to increase understanding and awareness of the effects of crime and to ensure better recognition of victims' rights.

Services provided by Victim Support

Support for women

Victim Support has considerable experience working as a service provider in the field of sexual violence. Since the development of Victim Support in the 1970s, local schemes have provided a service to women who have been raped or sexually assaulted. In 1985 a working party was set up to determine how the work in this area should evolve and, as a result, the first national training programme for work with women who had suffered sexual violence was published (Victim Support, 1987).

Over the last five years the number of women referred to Victim Support following a rape or sexual assault has doubled. Last year, Victim Support schemes offered a service to over 15,400 victims of rape and other sexual offences.

Referral to Victim Support

Some people are put in touch with Victim Support by the police. An increasing number make direct contact themselves. In 1995, almost a third of the women offered help by Victim Support made direct contact with their local scheme. Some of these women may have chosen not to report the attack to the police.

The service

The Victim Support volunteers who are trained to work with women who have been raped or sexually assaulted can:

Referring on to other agencies

Victim Support does not provide therapy. Specialist psychological counselling or psychiatric intervention are not requested by, or appropriate for, all women who have experienced sexual violence. However, where there is a specific request by the woman, or where a perceived need on the part of the Victim Support worker is discussed with the woman and leads to a request for specialist psychological or psychiatric help, Victim Support endeavours to refer on to an appropriate agency wherever possible.

Where a client needs legal advice, the scheme will frequently have a legal advisor who can assist, or the scheme will endeavour to refer on. Where a client needs assistance to be re-housed, the scheme will liaise with, or refer on to, the appropriate agencies wherever possible.

Standards of practice and training

All Victim Support schemes and Witness Services work to a nationally agreed Code of practice, (Victim Support, 1995a). Contact with women must always be made by a female volunteer or member of staff. People who have been raped or sexually assaulted are never referred (whether by the police or another organisation) to Victim Support without their prior consent. The services offered by Victim Support are confidential and free.

In accordance with the Code of practice, all Victim Support volunteers who work with women who have been raped or sexually assaulted must have successfully completed our specialist training programme. This programme, updated in 1994, was produced by a working party made up of experienced Victim Support practitioners, external counsellors, trainers and senior representatives from the police service (Victim Support, 1994). The pack includes a range of information sheets, a detailed course programme and notes on preparation and follow-up work with course participants.

Support at court

Based in the Crown Courts, Victim Support's Witness Service provides information and support to victims, witnesses and their families before, during and after the trial. The Witness Service can arrange familiarisation visits to show witnesses around an empty court room before the trial. Volunteers provide information and explanation about court procedures and can accompany witnesses into court when they are called to give evidence. The Witness Service also provides private waiting areas in the court, to ensure that victims and witnesses do not have to sit near the defendant or his or her family. Since April 1996, the Witness Service has been established in every Crown Court centre in England and Wales.

Specialist leaflets

Victim Support produces a range of information leaflets. The leaflet Rape and sexual assault: information for women gives clear information and explains the help that is available. This leaflet is distributed by Victim Support schemes and is available in local libraries, doctors' surgeries etc. It has been translated into a range of languages. In 1995, Victim Support published Treating victims of crime: guidelines for health professionals (Victim Support, 1995c). This booklet, distributed to all General Practitioners and Accident and Emergency staff, includes a section on sexual violence.

Domestic violence

Victim Support recognises the links between sexual violence and other forms of violence against women. An awareness session on domestic violence is included in the basic training programme for all our volunteers. Victim Support schemes work with other local agencies and participate in domestic violence forums. Many schemes also undertake longer term work with victims of domestic violence, and a specialist training programme has been produced for this purpose. In 1995, local schemes offered help to 13,396 women suffering domestic violence.

Support for men

Victim Support also offers general practical help and information to men who have been raped or sexually assaulted, although, at the moment, few come forward for support. Victim Support's work in this area is currently under development and not all schemes are able to offer a specialist service to male victims of sexual violence. If schemes cannot offer a service themselves they will make a sensitive referral on to an appropriate agency, with the victim's consent.

Victim Support's campaign for victims' rights

Informed by our experience of working with millions of victims of crime, Victim Support also has a long history of campaigning for victims' rights within the criminal justice system. Victim Support believes that all victims of crime have a right to expect certain standards of treatment. Over the past few years Victim Support has been successful in negotiating many improvements for victims within the criminal justice system. The first Victim's charter, published in 1990, had set out some principles of good practice but they were not being implemented effectively. Therefore Victim Support launched the campaign for victims' rights during Victim Support Week 1995 with the publication of The rights of victims of crime policy paper (Victim Support, 1995b). This paper contains a statement of the rights to which Victim Support believes all victims of crime are fundamentally entitled. These rights are grouped under five main headings: to be free of the burden of decisions relating to the offender; to receive information and explanation about the progress of their case, and to have the opportunity to provide their own information about the case for use in the criminal justice process; to be protected in any way necessary; to receive compensation; and to receive respect, recognition and support. All of these rights have a special significance for individuals who have suffered sexual violence. For example, people who have been raped or sexually assaulted have their identity protected from publication. However, the woman's identity is not protected at court, which can make her feel vulnerable to further victimisation.

Purpose of the survey

In continuance of this campaign, Victim Support decided to undertake an in-house survey to look at the treatment of victims of rape within the criminal justice system. This survey aims to consider how far current practice compares to what we believe to be the inherent rights of every victim of crime. The purpose of the survey was to highlight areas of good practice, to outline common problems, identify areas of unmet need and to make recommendations.

Crime statistics and reporting rates

Sexual offences make up just 0.5% of all recorded crime. According to the Home Office statistics, 30,400 sexual offences were recorded by the police in England and Wales in the twelve months ending June 1996 (Home Office, 1996a). Within this twelve month period the number of sexual offences increased by 2%, which compares to an average 3% increase per year over the last ten years. According to these statistics, the increase in the twelve months to June 1996 includes an increase of 14% in offences of rape (which includes a small number of male rape cases following the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994). The high increase in the number of recorded sexual offences is thought to be due, in part, to an increase in the rate of reporting and recording of these offences (Home Office, 1996a).

In the past year Victim Support offered a service to 3,431 victims of rape. Referrals of victims of rape have doubled over the past five years, with a third of victims of rape contacting Victim Support directly themselves, rather than being referred through the police.

Victim Support recognises that the vast majority of crimes of sexual violence are never reported to the police. Victim surveys carried out in Great Britain suggest that between 75% and 90% of all rapes may go unreported (Maguire, Morgan and Reiner, 1994).

People may decide not to report for a variety of personal reasons, such as because their attacker was known to them or the likely reactions of their family. Many women do not realise that the abuse they have experienced is a criminal offence. Reporting is also likely to be influenced by perceptions of a criminal justice system which is seen as unsympathetic to the needs of victims and rarely convicts on a charge of rape.

According to the official crime statistics the conviction rate for rape has drastically declined over the past twenty years (Home Office, 1989 and 1994). The conviction rate for rapes reported to the police has fallen from 33% in 1979, to 17% in 1987 and only 11% in 1993. Professor Sue Lees estimates that, once figures for non-recording by the police and the outcomes of appeals against conviction are taken into account, the conviction rate for rape drops to approximately 4% of reported rapes (Lees, 1996).

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