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The first-hand reality of trying to get justice for rape

One of the primary purposes of the English legal system is to ensure justice is served to those who break the law, including cases involving rape and sexual assault. But for many, the justice system is failing.

After five years of trying to bury what happened to her, Ciara decided to report that she was raped.

‘It had got to the point in my story where my private, personal, professional lives were all being brought in together because of the trauma,’ says Ciara. ‘I was finding it very difficult to have any power over what had happened to me, for anybody to take me seriously.’

After what she described as the ‘traumatic experience’ of reporting her rape and the ensuing months of waiting, Ciara received a call to find out her rapist would not be charged.

‘At the time, they gave me a decision that they weren’t going to charge, and then we found more evidence in terms of messages and texts and things that I had been able to recover from an old computer,’ says Ciara. ‘I got a little bit of a false sense of hope when that happened.’

Unfortunately, Ciara’s tragic story is shared by thousands of women across England and Wales.

Last year, 67,169 rapes were recorded by the police, and by the end of the year, only 1,276 (1.9%) of these cases resulted in charges being bought. This meant that only 2 in 100 rapes recorded by the police resulted in a charge that same year, let alone a conviction.

‘The system is broken. It doesn’t work,’ says feminist attorney Dr Ann Olivarius. ‘It’s really quite a painful joke.’

Ann has been tackling sexual assault and rape cases for over four decades. She says the lack of commitment to take the issue seriously by police and wider society makes it hard to get a rape conviction.

‘There is no commitment in this country, even in government, in any kind of situation at least, people don’t feel that commitment,’ says Ann. ‘There is a widespread view that this is just not a problem.

‘We are culturally conditioned to think certain behaviours are normal, which makes it difficult to understand what is going wrong.’

Ciara encountered this when she heard that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was not going ahead with the charge. Ciara says she received a lot of baseless ‘lip service’ from the officer, who told her that a lot of time had passed, there was no DNA, and she was intoxicated, making it difficult to prove the fact in court.

Ciara grilled the officer on what would have happened if the circumstances had been different – if she had been sober, if she had the DNA, or if she had gone to the police straight away.

‘I grilled him for a good 20 minutes,’ says Ciara. ‘Every single time I asked him a question, the answer was the same, which was: ‘No, probably not, probably not’, every time I said why, he couldn’t give me an answer.

‘I wanted the charge so that I could move on with my life and have some justice in my story.’

Even when charges are brought, many women have trouble securing a conviction against their rapists. Louise reported that she had been raped by her father 36 years ago, and despite being charged with nine counts of rape of a child, he was not convicted.

After the first trial ended with the jury being discharged, a second trial took place at the same court. The defendant was found not guilty of one count of raping a child under 12. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining counts.

The defendant was then found not guilty to two charges of raping a girl under 16 after the third trial. The remaining charges were undecided by the jury.

Despite her emotional turmoil, Louise was prepared to take on yet another trial, but CPS decided not to proceed and could only do so in exceptional circumstances.

‘They said I’d been a very credible witness, and he hadn’t, but they weren’t willing to take on a third trial,’ says Louise.

‘How more exceptional can it get than a child rapist who’s also got convictions for domestic violence and numerous violent convictions, driving under the influence, grievous bodily harm, criminal damage, theft of a vehicle… you name it, he’s got it.

‘They (CPS) broke me. They didn’t give a shit.’

‘Survivors might wait months or even years for a decision to be made about their case, or they might be told their case is receiving no further action without much clarification as to why,’ says Jayne Butler, the CEO of charity Rape Crisis England & Wales.

‘We hear that the police and Crown Prosecution Service will sometimes make decisions on whether or not to proceed with a case based on their own perception of whether or not a jury will convict, rather than based on the evidence.’

‘This leads to investigations being focused on the so-called “credibility” of the complainant.’

When asked why she thinks it was a hung jury, Louise believes it was because the police didn’t do their job.

‘I don’t feel as though South Wales Police presented and collated all the evidence basically,’ says Louise. ‘If the evidence had been there, then I absolutely, strongly, vehemently believe that he would be rotting in jail right now because there was plenty of evidence.

‘I don’t think they did their jobs.’

Louise says she gave the Officer in Charge (OIC) a list of 23 tasks to complete and evidence to obtain, but she says the OIC failed to complete the tasks.

‘She [OIC] failed to arrest the abuser, failed to seize his devices, but took mine and breached my privacy,’ says Louise. ‘She did not establish if there were any other victims and took no safeguarding steps to protect children he may have contact with.’

‘Everybody says that rape trials are difficult to convict because it’s one person’s word against another, and it’s difficult to prove, but there was evidence,’ says Louise. ‘The OIC didn’t find it, she didn’t look for it, she didn’t do her job, and I feel very, very angry at that.’

‘All I ever wanted was justice, and all I’ve had in return is just more misery.’

To report any form of sexual assault, going to the police is the first step… a step that often has many hurdles.

‘The police are the victim’s first point of contact with the criminal justice system, and lack of sensitivity in the handling of a complaint can be very traumatic and cause victims to withdraw their complaints,’ says Ann.

Although Ciara had an ‘incredible’ female police officer who handled her case, she was initially met by officers who seemed overwhelmed with the nature of what she was reporting.

‘It was very traumatic for me because they really didn’t have a clue of how to deal with what I was saying,’ says Ciara. ‘I had to repeat myself over and over again.’

Afterwards, Ciara felt interrogated, being reminded that she was accusing someone of a crime one below murder.

‘There is, at no point, a moment in which you don’t feel like you are the criminal,’ says Ciara. ‘They really do hit you with some hard truths that make it very difficult to want to stay there and carry on.’

The Labour Party found that amid court delays, low police conviction rates and fears over the trauma of reliving the crime in court, 69.2% of those subjected to a serious sexual assault withdrew from investigations.

Rape Crisis also found that 5 in 6 women who are raped don’t report it because of embarrassment, fears the process would be humiliating, or scepticism over whether police can help.

‘They’re [women who report] going to be scrutinised, they’re going to be damned,’ says Ann. ‘Everybody’s hate politics will descend on them.

‘They will be used as examples for being a poor woman, that they’ll have to experience retaliation for having told their truth, that somehow it was their fault that they got in a situation where they allowed this to happen, that she should just let it go off of her back.’

Rather than pursuing criminal cases, Ann brings civil claims for rape and sexual assault to correct unfair situations – often by compensating.

‘We just find the criminal system doesn’t work and just retraumatises,’ says Ann. ‘We go after trying to get financial damages because that’s the currency of justice in Britain.’

The lawyer believes increasing the damages awarded in civil trials would be a powerful new route to justice for rape victims.

‘There should be serious monetary damages, and civil rape cases should be something that this country really puts forward,’ says Ann. ‘There should be resources to help bring it, and we should bring those cases.’

In their joint Decriminalisation of Rape report, Rape Crisis set out recommendations to overhaul the criminal justice system and improve the experiences of rape victims and survivors.

These include establishing specialist Rape and Serious Sexual Offence Units across all police forces, comprehensive ‘trauma-informed’ training on sexual violence and its impacts, and for jurors to receive training on rape myths, stereotypes, and trauma responses.

Not enough women report their rape, and when they do, they are met with prejudice, insufficient support, and a false sense of hope.

The legal system is flawed, but with the right changes systemically and beyond, it could one day enable justice and change the statistics for the better.