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Guest Blogger Dr Olivia Smith on why we need It’s Not Justice

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The justice that lies behind Its Not Justice

When Pavan called to say she was creating a website for survivors to share their experiences of the criminal justice system, I was first thrilled and then surprised that no one had done this sooner. As a researcher I’ve sat in court for many rape and sexual offence trials, and I’ve seen that every survivor’s experience will be different; but there is a clear and consistent pattern of being ignored, intimidated and silenced. My research has highlighted the difficult practicalities of going to court, from bumping into the offender to long delays before the trial starts. It has also shown that despite many judges and barristers appearing sympathetic to survivors, trials are full of myths and stereotypes about rape, as well as intimidating and invasive questioning.

This is not new. Researchers such as the late Sue Lees have been highlighting these problems since the 1980s and 1990s, while others such as Liz Kelly have shown survivors being asked irrelevant questions about their past despite rules to prevent this. In fact, there have been many well-meaning attempts to improve survivors’ experiences of trial (for example, introducing the use of video link so they can give evidence from another room) and the Crown Prosecution Service have made strong commitments to change.

Why, then, do we need the It’s Not Justice website?

Partly, this website is needed because in spite of high profile cases, such as the suicide of Frances Andrade in 2013, many legal professionals and members of the public are in denial about the treatment of rape survivors in the CJS. In their commitment to the idea of a just world (the idea that those who do good will have good happen to them), being faced with the unjust and undeserved experiences of rape survivors is unnerving for many people, so they find reasons to blame the victim and feel safe and in control once more. This is made worse by irresponsible media reporting in some areas, where misunderstandings about rape are repeatedly trotted out to undermine the survivor’s experiences because of her clothing, her actions, her drinking (never acknowledging that rape is the sole responsibility of the rapist). Such reporting ignores the realities of rape, or the impact that trauma can have on survivors. By collecting the experiences of survivors in one place, we will have clear evidence of the problems that we’ve known individually for decades- It’s my hope that this will raise awareness and create more demand for change.

Significantly, though, It’s Not Justice is needed because it may provide a sense of justice in itself. One of the things that survivors consistently tell us is that they want to be heard and acknowledged, that they felt silenced by their rape and now want to regain their voice. The criminal justice system can be a place for this, as there is a sense of validation that comes from having the offender admit their guilt or a jury convict based on the survivor’s testimony. However this is far too rare. Estimates vary depending on what factors are included, but it is widely considered that only around 7.2% of the cases reported to police will end in a conviction for rape (although there have been improvements in some aspects recently). Indeed, the vast majority of cases will not go beyond the police stage of the CJS (and we need to recognise that only around 10% of rapes are actually reported to police in the first place), so survivors will not have the opportunity to tell their story at trial.

Another researcher, Nicole Westmarland, has also highlighted that the criminal justice system is not necessarily concerned with the things that matter most to survivors. In the need to protect the defendant’s right to fair trial, the criminal justice system has a narrow view on what is relevant and survivors do not always have an opportunity to express things in the way they’d like. Where the CJS may silence rape survivors, then, this website can be a place to break the silence, to speak out and be heard.

I hope to blog more in future weeks about my experiences of rape trials and what can be done about the difficult practicalities, the myths and stereotypes, and the intimidating or invasive questioning; but for now I would just like to thank Pavan and the It’s Not Justice team for providing us with the space to stand together and speak out. Let’s break the silence.

Links in the text:

Frances Andrade- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/10994279/Frances-Andrade-case-prompts-review-of-the-treatment-of-victims.html

Realities of rape- http://rapecrisis.org.uk/mythsvsrealities.php

Impact that trauma- http://www.wrsac.org.uk/information/what-is-rape-trauma-syndrome/

Although there have been improvements in some aspects recently- http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/25/violence-against-woman-convictions-record-number-crown-prosecution-service

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