Justice is rare for victims of rape
The criminal justice system is failing rape victims in Northern Ireland. The third sector provides good support for anyone affected – but structural reform is necessary. Scope speaks with Victim Support NI.
Northern Ireland’s justice system is “not fit for purpose” when it comes to sexual violence.
Despite both police and prosecutors setting up dedicated teams to help deal with the issue, the entire process – from the reporting of a crime, onwards – is slow and outcomes are woeful.
A report published this week from the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJINI) highlighted a number of worrying statistics – with Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan also raised concerns about “avoidable delays” in the process. The findings included:
- The number of sexual crimes reported to police has almost tripled in the past 18 years and now averages around nine per day.
- The conviction rate for rape cases in NI is around 1.8% - much lower than England and Wales (3.3%) and Scotland (3.6%) – while for other sexual crimes it was under 10%.
- Systemic delays are a “substantial problem” which the Chief Inspector says occur “from when the initial police investigation and file preparation was undertaken, through the time taken by prosecutors to review the case and make a decision to prosecute or not, and afterwards in the number of adjournments at Court before a trial commenced”
Scope spoke with Janice Bunting, Deputy CEO of Victim Support NI, who said: “We believe that victims are being failed by a system that is not fit for purpose.
“When someone uses the term ‘avoidable delay’, you know that’s unacceptable – and that something can be done about it.
“We have said we understand the reasons. There is a rise in sexual violence crimes, you can see that from the statistics, but this is not an excuse and it shouldn’t be used as one.
“To be fair to the PPS and the PSNI, they have established the Serious Crime Unit and Public Protection Branch, respectively, and have tried to help move things forward but the reality is things are still very slow.”
The problems with delays are manifold and can have various negative impacts for victims – and, it should be noted, criminal proceedings that drag are bad for the accused, as well.
Ms Bunting said: “From speaking to the victims that we help, the main problem for them is the delay in cases coming forward, and that can contribute to people dropping out of the process.
“When it comes to sexual violence, the event itself is very traumatic and for some people that’s completely life changing. They find it very, very difficult to move ahead from.
“For the majority of people it’s a crime in them, a crime on them, and their body is a crime scene they have to carry around with them.
“The impact of trauma can affect memory.
“Memory recall of the event is vital and the longer distance you place between the event happening and it going to court makes if more difficult to recall and makes it more difficult to recount the truth.
“Delay can also serve to re-traumatise the victim, for example if they have been trying to move ahead with their lives, if they have been brave enough to report what happened – and people who do report have been extremely brave to do so – but then find it’s one or two or three years before make it into the courtroom then being asked to relive that all over again.”
Ms Bunting said the PSNI and Public Prosecution Service (PPS) have made efforts to improve outcomes – citing the police’s Public Protection Branch and the PPS’ Serious Crime Unit, which were also praised by the Chief Inspector – and work with the third sector but that there are still a great many problems with stretched statutory provision.
However, there are a variety of organisations that can help victims of sexual violence.
Victim Support NI will help anyone affected by crime – whether or not they have reported the matter to police – and have dedicated support for these types of crimes, including two Independent Sexual Violence Advocates (ISVAs).
“They are totally independent of the police and the PPS. They are advocates for the victims, and can be the sole point of contact for the victim as well, engaging with the PSNI and PPS on their behalf.”
Networks between different partner organisations are also good, with Victim Support NI having good relationships with Nexus, the Men’s Advisory Project (MAP) and Women’s Aid.
Ms Bunting continued: “We also have a witness service, so anyone going to court can conduct a pre trial visit to the building and see how it is set up – where the defence will sit, where the prosecution will sit, even little things like where the toliets are. They can also help them with special measures. We also have a safe place in every court in the land so they can be separate from the defendant and the defendant’s family.”
Victim Support NI is also able to assist victims in seeking criminal injury compensation, where applicable.
Dedicated support in the form of Rape Crisis NI was re-energised in Belfast earlier this year, as well – and will end a period of several years where NI was the only region in the UK without such provision – and is being set up in collaboration by organisations including Nexus, Women’s Aid and MAP. It is due to launch next month.
Support services for victims are there – but none of this solves the fundamental problems within the justice system.
Ms Bunting said that, while the extremely low conviction rates are a concern for victims, they tend to go into criminal proceedings knowing the figures for outcomes, adding: “Victims want to be heard, want to be believed, and want to tell their story – and can come forward accepting that this [no conviction] is a possibility.”
Former Justice Minister Claire Sugden, Independent MLA for East Londonderry, tweeted after the publication of the report: “Sadly, I’m not surprised by this report. The criminal justice system is slow, the process lacks humanity & communication is limited. As one of the most prevalent crimes in NI, Addressing DV & sexual violence needs to be prioritised by all. Useful report.”
Chief Inspector Mr McGuigan said: “Over the last 12 years CJI has published two reports on sexual violence, one on file quality and disclosure and three on avoidable delay. Through these various reports we have previously recommended that police officers and prosecutors should work more closely together and develop a ‘prosecution team’ approach. We have also urged the criminal justice system and the organisations themselves to take action to address delay and improve the timeliness of case file progression.
“But yet despite accepting our previous recommendations, impetus has been lost and the work required to bring about real change remains unfinished.
“The result is that time and time again victims of sexual crime in particular are being failed, especially when despite a lengthy criminal justice process, we estimate that in Northern Ireland in 2016-17 the number of convictions for rape as a proportion of the number of rapes recorded by the police was less than 2% and for other sexual offences, the proportion was less than 10%.”
The latest report includes three strategic and six operational recommendations, but the Chief Inspector said this alone would not be enough to fix ongoing problems.
Both he and Victim Support NI have called for the implementation of these recommendations as well as due consideration to be paid to the findings of the ongoing review from Sir John Gillen, due to be published soon.The case for change is well established.
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