Rape victims feel let down by justice system, study finds

22 August 2019, 10:05 | Updated: 22 August 2019, 10:10


Victims of rape and sexual assault in Scotland do not feel like justice has been served even if the person accused goes to jail, a study has found.

Researchers from the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) interviewed 17 people who reported allegations of rape or serious sexual assault, and they found none of them felt justice had been achieved.

The victims argued the time taken by the justice system, administrative errors and poor communication from the police and courts led to a negative feeling about the handling of their cases.

Although some participants in the study praised the Scottish advocacy services, the report found there is a "considerable gap" among those who report sexual violence between their expectation of the criminal justice system and their experience of it.

One woman interviewed in the study described the process as "three years of re-traumatisation", while another said she "didn't know how to live for 18 months".

University of Glasgow academic Dr Oona Brooks-Hay, who co-authored the report with colleagues Prof Michele Burman and Dr Lisa Bradley, said she hoped the findings will make the criminal justice system address concerns raised around how complainants are informed, supported and represented.

Dr Brooks-Hay said: "There is a pressing need to look at how the criminal justice process can be reformed to meet the needs of victim-survivors who have had the courage to engage with the system.

"While our research reveals that some relatively minor practical changes could go a long way to improving experiences, more radical change - such as the introduction of independent legal representation in serious sexual offence cases - must be given serious consideration.

"Sexual offences have profound and distinctive impacts, and therefore merit distinctive responses."

Recommendations made by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research include specialised sexual assault training for all police officers, earlier support from specialist agencies, and better protection at court to avoid meeting the accused and their family.

There are also calls for a review into the way alleged victims are questioned and cross-examined in court, which was found to be "a significant source of distress".

Responding to the study, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: "Further improving the experiences of rape and sexual assault survivors is high on the Victims Taskforce agenda and as co-chair of the group, I welcomed a preview of this research at our last meeting.

"These frank, first-hand accounts made a valuable contribution to our discussions and I thank all the survivors for their courage in coming forward to tell their story and participate in this project.

"We will carefully consider the findings and work with justice partners, victims organisations and researchers, such as SCCJR, to make a lasting difference.

"It is important that improvements made to the justice system are informed by a sound evidence base and that we prioritise actions which will make the most difference to survivors."

"While we are certainly not there yet, progress is being made on enhancing the rights and support available to victims," Mr Yousaf added, citing the £1 million in Scottish Government funding towards facilities in Glasgow for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence.

Gordon Jackson QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: "Going through the court process will never be a pleasant experience, and often it can be very upsetting.

"Defence counsels must be able to test the evidence against their client, and to test it robustly. That can still be done with courtesy and sensitivity, and the faculty goes to some lengths to train its members in best practice.

"We will ensure that this report is noted in our training programme.

"One of our most experienced criminal QCs, Frances McMenamin, is part of a review group, headed by Lady Dorrian, the Lord Justice Clerk, which is looking at the way sexual offence cases are dealt with in the courts and we look forward to seeing its findings."