The Government’s apology to rape survivors, predominantly women, is a significant step forwards and welcome political leadership given the levels of disbelief, victim-blaming and shame experienced by victims of rape and sexual violence. The apology matters.
As a specialist violence against women and girl’s charity working with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence across London, we see daily the impact of male violence on survivors’ lives. And as the Government acknowledges, the criminal justice system too often serves to be a continuation of the trauma and disempowerment that women experience, having a long-term impact on their emotional wellbeing, mental health, relationships, and every aspect of their lives.
The criminal justice system is working within a society stained by inequality between men and women. The #Metoo movement, the outpouring of women’s experiences in the wake of the tragic murder of Sarah Everard and the findings of Ofsted’s rapid review into sexual harassment and abuse in schools and colleges are just some of the more recent events that have illuminated the extent of the challenge.
In light of the significant failures recognised by the Government’s Rape Review, it is therefore disappointing that the response is piecemeal and incremental, bringing in pilot schemes and adjustments to training and guidance when we need decisive visible action and accountability to turn the tide. We want our Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVAs) working with survivors of rape and sexual violence to be able to give a less pessimistic picture of the likelihood of securing a conviction for their perpetrator, even when they are the anomalous “perfect” victim: a white, educated, non-disabled heterosexual woman raped by a stranger.
If the Government is serious about increasing the rates of charging, prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of rape and sexual violence, we need to see investment and training for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and the police on a much greater scale than put forward in these proposals. The two-year timescale to turn things around is further proof of the lack of ambition required.
We welcome the commitment to increase the number of ISVAs and the ambition for every victim to have access to their vital independent expert support and advocacy. Of the number of incidences reported to the police by women being supported by Solace ISVAs over the last three years, 36% resulted in a charge compared to between 3% and 5% nationally, and 93% who went through any part of the system said that having an ISVA alongside them improved their experience of the process.
We are cautiously optimistic about the changes to digital evidence collection and recognise the differences in understanding between the police and CPS described in the review. Women we work with have been consistently told they need to hand over their phones and sign away all third-party evidence or the CPS will not consider prosecution.
We are disappointed however to see no action on victims’ access to counselling without the risk of their notes being requested by the defence team. Given the time it takes for a case to be prosecuted, victims are currently unable to address and begin to process what happened to them until after the trial leaving them with the trauma for years. We support the recommendation made by the Centre for Women’s Justice, EVAW, Imkaan and Rape Crisis England and Wales calling for counselling and therapy notes to be non-disclosable giving them the same status as professional legal advice. Any risks can be mitigated by the accreditation and regulation of counsellors providing this support to victims/survivors.
We are also disappointed to see a minimal equalities assessments about who is reporting to the police within the review and urge Government, the Police and CPS to urgently address this to ensure that Black and minoritized victims and disabled victims are not disproportionately less likely to receive justice.
Finally, we look forward to inputting to the scorecard for monitoring progress against the Government’s target of returning to 2016 outcomes for rape cases. We would like to see targets for reducing victim attrition to ensure that victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system are not simply outsourced to ISVAs but is the responsibility of the whole system to change.