Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, rape is a criminal offence. Despite this figures reveal that ‘just one in seven rape survivors expect justice in England and Wales’.
Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, led a survey seeking the perspective of the victim in the criminal justice system; the results are chilling. From nearly 500 survivors of rape, just 14% believed they would receive justice. Baird asserts, “the victim of the crime should be at the heart of the criminal justice process, but research shows this is not how many victims perceived it.” This blog explores the relationship between the criminal justice system and the victim, how victims have been side-lined and, contends that their voices are worthy of recognition.
Over the Years
Historically, a victim in the criminal justice system was certainly recognised. Throughout the 11th century, the victim could control the entire trial. This ‘golden age’ of the victim began to decline from the 13th century onwards. Kirchengast explains that ‘the gradual introduction of communal and then social concerns into the common law displaced the victim from their orthodox position as private prosecutor’, as crime became more widely understood as a threat to society and not merely a private matter.
The ‘displaced’ victim remained until the 1970s as the so-called ‘forgotten party’ began to gain recognition by those leading the victims’ rights movement. Wemmers argues that it was, ‘the State that shut out the victim’, and reveals the breakdown of the relationship is on the State’s shoulders. The statistics prove this is not mere history. Many victims are still ‘forgotten’ in the criminal justice process; the State must ultimately take responsibility to rebuild this relationship.
Victim Impact Statements (VIS)
VIS offer victims a legal right to actively participate in court and to have their voices heard. However, they remain a contentious element of the criminal justice process to this day. Prior to the introduction of VIS in 1974, victims were merely witnesses. Therefore, the ability for the victims to produce a VIS was an undeniable victory for victims’ recognition in courts. Indeed, Erez stated that VIS were, ‘one of the most far-reaching legal reform accomplishments,’ in achieving victim input in criminal proceedings.
However, scholars argue that the VIS is not simply enough. In March 2019, few victims reported that they were offered the opportunity to make a VIS by police. Moreover, the survey found a massive decline in the proportion of victims who feel like their statement has been taken into account by the criminal justice system. Moffett agrees that whilst VIS are necessary in ‘providing victims with the recognition that they seek’ and help to, ‘empower victims and combat the sense of powerlessness that many victims feel during criminal proceedings,’ they are often dismissed during trials.
“The voices of survivors must be given space in the courtroom, without dismissing the experience of each victim.”
The voices of survivors must be given space in the courtroom, without dismissing the experience of each victim. To fully grasp the extent of the impact crimes such as rape have, it is essential that the voices of the survivors are secure at the ‘heart of the process’.
The Blame Game
Kama Melly, a criminal law barrister, commented in a recent interview on the strategy of defence teams who question the credibility of the victim and base their inquiries on rape myths. This is not unusual for victims to be used by the defence to prove their point. One survivor said, “I was in far deeper investigation than the rapist,” when commenting on her lack of faith in the justice system.
Rape myths are destructive and deeply damaging in the court. In 2019/20, only 1.4% of rape cases reported to the police resulted in a charge by the Crown Prosecution Service, in England and Wales, despite an increased amount of complaints made. The sheer lack of prosecutions being pursued reemphasises that we live in a society where rape myths not only exist but are relied upon in the criminal justice system; stressing the ill-conceived idea that it is the victim’s responsibility to not be raped.
Moffett raises the presence of victim hierarchy in the courts; that certain victims are more worthy of justice – especially children who are socially seen as more vulnerable. Moffett is right to raise the point of victim hierarchy; society must reimagine our ideals of victimhood. In the case of rape victims, we can see the discrimination this hierarchy creates. Myriads of rape victims comment that they are left feeling revictimised, traumatised and neglected by the lack of recognition they receive from the criminal justice bodies. Therefore, reinforcing how broken the relationship is between the criminal justice system and victims.
Earlier this year the Victim’s Code was revisited, laying out victim’s rights with greater transparency. Justice Minister Alex Chalk declared, “simplifying the Victim’s Code is a vital step in our efforts to rebuild confidence in the criminal justice system.” Fewer than one in five victims are aware that the Victim’s Code exists, meaning they do not know what support and information they are entitled to receive.
Similarly, Northern Ireland’s Victim Charter outlining the rights of victims was placed on statutory footing in 2019. In July 2020, the CJINI released a report which generally showed a sense of improvement. Yet, it acknowledged that from the victims’ perspective it is a difficult process to journey, and many remain unaware of what rights and support is available. The exposure of victim’s rights is a commendable step in rebuilding this broken relationship. It is paramount that victims are made aware of this key, life-saving information.
It is glaringly obvious that the state must continue to implement measures, listen to victim’s personal experiences and to bridge the gap of justice. Supporting survivors will help create a fairer justice system and rebuild this broken relationship. Baird is correct when she states, “the victim of crime should be at the heart of the process” and society must also do more by listening and realising that our idea of victimhood calls for a transformation. All victims deserve to be heard and recognised.
As many of us watched the shocking news emerging from the south of England over the past week, following the discovery of Sarah Everard who had disappeared on Wednesday, March 3rd, the issue of the safety of women in our society has been driven to the fore of public discourse. Ms. Everard had disappeared on March 3rd, making her way home to Brixton from the Clapham Common area of South London. The investigation into her death has taken police to various locations around Southern England, including Deal in Kent and Dover. The revelation that the chief suspect in the Sarah Everard case, who had been initially arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and later on suspicion of murder, was a serving Metropolitan Policeman, rightly intensified fears.
There is a strong feeling that the issue of women’s safety in public spaces, particularly that of young women, has been sidelined is clearly evident. The rapid unfolding of developments surrounding the Sarah Everard investigation coupled with the outcome of the UN Women UK survey which revealed that an astonishing 97% of young women, between the ages of 18 and 24, said they had experience of being sexually harrassed. In response, many women took to social media to voice their concerns and first-hand experiences of harrassement, bullying and generally inappropriate behaviour from men. As the public concern increases around these pressing issues, only a combined and concerted approach from a cross-section of society and the Government will effect much needed and urgent change. The fundamental reform will only be successful until entrenched and harmful attitudes of society, change and change drastically.