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Tackling myths in, and about, the criminal justice system

By Siân Ruddick, Independent Sexual Violence Advocate

Last week saw a man previously convicted of rape get the opportunity to take the stand once more and try to convince a jury to find him not guilty for sexual offences. This time he succeeded. The defendant was Ched Evans, a professional footballer who used his fame and wealth to offer a huge £50,000 reward in exchange for information that could lead to his acquittal. The retrial has again mobilised an online army to defend him and break the anonymity of the survivor. By December 2014 she had changed her name for the fifth time after being hounded by Evan’s supporters and this year her identity has been revealed again. As the retrial unfolded these past 2 weeks it has shed light on the often shrouded inner workings of the criminal justice system and the experiences of survivors of sexual violence within it.

Myths that exist in the world about sexual violence, the men that commit it and the women that survive it do not lose their power or disappear at the doors of police stations or court rooms. In the Evans trial we saw the survivor’s sexual history be used as a way of clearing Evans. Myths that a woman’s sexual history can decide whether she was raped or not, that what she was wearing was an invitation, that being drunk is a failure on her part to keep herself safe, that having a mental health diagnosis makes her an unreliable witness, that he’s a really nice guy and wouldn’t do that – all these myths and more exist in the criminal justice system and it is left to individual police officers, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyers, barristers, judges and jury members to subscribe to them or to challenge them.

This week has also seen a report released showing that the number of women reporting rape to the police has doubled in the past four years, that’s 23,851 women who have made the incredibly brave decision to go to the police and talk about their experiences in the past year (full report and statistics can be found here https://bit.ly/2e01XLN). These figures are being attributed to women having increased confidence in the criminal justice system after the public revelation of the widespread abuse carried out by Jimmy Saville, as well as the criminal justice response to other high profile abusers. The fact that these crimes could even be investigated came as news to many survivors who didn’t know that their experiences of abuse could be reported years later. This highlights one of the central issues for survivors accessing justice: how the criminal justice system works feels opaque –   making it very difficult for survivors to get accurate and impartial information about what their rights and options are. Survivors often tell us that they feel they don’t have any options in the system, that once you have a conversation with police about wanting to report wheels are set in motion and it is hard to know how to press pause, or stop.

The report also shows that just 11 percent of those 23,851 reports of adult rape resulted in conviction- this can and should be better. For anyone who has given evidence at a sexual offences trial or seen the court process first-hand the role of myths is obvious – they are used by the defence in an attempt to discredit survivors and to play  to the misconceptions  jurors may already have about sexual violence. We know that when these myths are challenged by prosecutors and judges there is a much better chance of the jury being able to focus on the evidence in the case and not the myths and stereotypes that have been used to distract them.

We know that not guilty verdicts are far too common, and the burden of proof is extremely high in crown courts in England and Wales. But there is a common misconception often pedalled by the mainstream media that a not guilty verdict means that the perpetrator was “found innocent” or “exonerated” when in fact this is not the case. In rape cases juries are told by judges that they have to be sure that the survivor did not consent and that the perpetrator acted intentionally and did not reasonably believe that the woman consented. Perpetrators are often known to the women they rape most commonly current or ex partners and often do not leave physical marks – there is no test to prove that a woman has been raped and so a perpetrator’s defence will most often be that the survivor consented. The jury are faced with an ultimatum – to be sure that an offence took place or to find the perpetrator not guilty so it is important to remember while a failure to convict means that there was not enough evidence for jurors to be certain, there was enough evidence for a range of professionals and experts to consider the case strong enough for court.

And we know that between 75 and 80 percent of cases do not get to trial and are not taken any further after the police investigation – this is known as a case being No Further Actioned or ‘NFA’d’. There is another set of myths surrounding cases which are NFA’d by police, namely that it was a false allegation that the police saw straight through and dropped. But there is no evidence that women lie to the police and make false allegations. We know that this is a misconception that hangs on one of the most powerful myths and social norms – women lie.

But we know that women do not lie, and in an arena swimming in statistics there are none that support the claim that they do. And though the Daily Mail may decry the 6,927 women who withdraw from the criminal justice system we know that to report is a huge step, and often a step into the unknown. It is only after reporting that women discover that it can take over 2 years to get to court and talk about the trauma you have faced to a room of strangers. If that feels like too much then who is it that has failed? The women who speak out or the system that leaves them silenced once again?

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If you live in South London and would like support going through the criminal justice system please contact our ISVA service on isva@rasasc.org.uk or call us on 0208 683 3311

If you would like some more information about what the criminal justice process is like please go here https://www.rasasc.org.uk/independent-sexual-violence-advocate-service/criminal-justice-system/ and https://rightsofwomen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/PDF-of-From-Report-to-Court-a-handbook-for-adult-survivors-of-sexual-violence.pdf

If you are looking for ISVA support in your area you can find your local Rape Crisis Centre here https://rapecrisis.org.uk/centres.php or check this list https://thesurvivorstrust.org/isva/

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