Report proposes new 'sexual violence courts'

Published: 9 February 2015 at 15:05

Dr Olivia Smith

Rape victims deserve better from our legal system, says Criminology Lecturer Dr Olivia Smith in IPR Policy Brief

Policy makers and legal professionals must work together to introduce specialist 'sexual violence courts' in order to improve how the legal system in England and Wales responds to rape cases, according to the authors of a new report released on 9 February.

Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bath have written the latest University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Policy Brief, which proposes a widespread overhaul of the current provisions in place for rape victims and also calls for a radical rethink of how legal guidance surrounding rape cases is interpreted.

New sexual violence courts, adapted from traditional courtrooms to better protect victims and take into account their vulnerability during trials, would provide alternative entrances for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses to use when moving around the court building.

Through research, the authors of the new report found that victims of sexual assaults often encounter defendants on their way to give evidence or end up waiting with a defendant's family or friends outside the courtroom.

As part of other measures to be considered, the report also proposes routinely emptying the public gallery when witnesses enter or exit the court to avoid intimidation and the introduction of a new pager system to allow witnesses to wait away from the court before giving evidence.

Significantly, however, the authors also raise serious questions over how common misconceptions about rape persist in the courtroom and how these are being used by defence barristers to mislead a jury and advance their case.

This might include raising questions about a witness' credibility based on so called 'irrational actions', such as delayed reporting of an assault, or the fact that victims may not have physically resisted an assault. Other studies have shown how both these 'irrational actions' are very common and indeed very normal among victims.

Lead author Dr Olivia Smith said: "From many studies we know that certain actions such as delayed reporting of rape or not resisting an attack, are widely misunderstood as suspicious despite being common among rape victims.

"Yet, in spite of greater awareness in the Bar, we found that defence barristers are still drawing heavily on misconceptions about rape to appeal to a jury and advance their case."

Bar Association guidelines state that Barristers should not mislead a jury, yet are also told to prioritise winning their case; something the authors of the IPR report suggest currently takes precedence.

Inadequacies in how courts respond to rape cases have been widely reported in the media, from Frances Andrade's suicide after giving evidence in February 2013 to the Director for Public Prosecution's recent calls for further reform of the way the Criminal Justice System (CJS) handles rape cases.

Most recently, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) released a 'rape toolkit' for police officers, which attempts to clarify misunderstandings about consent. The CPS is also consulting about the disclosure of defence arguments to witnesses in order to better prepare them for cross-examination.

Co-author Dr Tina Skinner, of the University of Bath, said: "Although the difficulties with rape trials are complex, establishing a specialist court which uses best practice is key to improving responses to victims and witnesses.

"Having specialised legal professionals who are aware of the key research in this area can go a long way to challenging misunderstandings about rape. It would also help address misunderstandings about legal rules and court practice, which are all too often a barrier to using the helpful policies already in place."

The new IPR policy brief is based on research conducted by observing adult rape and sexual assault trials at a large English Crown Court. The observations took place over a ten-month period in 2012, after a three-month pilot study in 2010. The findings were discussed with barristers and victim support workers.