Is it any wonder that one in two victims withdraw from rape investigations? (Picture: Getty Images)
Our criminal justice system is failing rape victims.
At present in the UK, only 1.3% of recorded rape cases result in a suspect being charged.
For years, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been called upon by campaigners and rape charities to improve both rape conviction and charge rates, as well as to overhaul a system in which victims of sexual violence often feel like they are the ones being treated as suspects.
You might not be aware, but at present, a victim of sexual assault can have their medical records, therapy notes and even school records requested as evidence by prosecutors and used as part of an investigation into the alleged crime.
Victims are routinely offered counselling after a rape or assault, but this counselling sometimes comes with a warning that any notes made within their therapy sessions might ultimately be used against them.
This puts victims in an impossible position – take therapy and feel pressure to try to say the ‘right’ thing for fear of saying something that might get their case thrown out of court and see their alleged attacker escape punishment, or turn down the offer of therapy altogether.
With some victims waiting for up to three years for their case to reach trial, that’s a long time to go without professional emotional and psychological support.
In my mind, it’s a gross violation of the need for victims to receive safe, strictly confidential counselling from a registered therapist who can help them to heal from such a traumatic event.
Last week, the CPS changed their guidance in an apparent attempt to address the issue, but they only made it worse.
Previous guidance stated that therapy notes were only meant to be disclosed in a criminal investigation if there was cause to believe that they would undermine the prosecution or support the defence.
The newly revised guidance, published on 26 May, states that therapy notes should only be disclosed if it is thought they might be ‘relevant’ to the case.
Relevant is a pretty broad term, and it sets the bar far lower for the defence to have the right to access what ought to be private notes taken during confidential sessions.
As someone who has been sexually assaulted herself, I know there were times I hid the full truth to people who messaged me to ask about what had happened
Surely much of what will be spoken about in pre-trial counselling could be relevant to the case? Although the CPS guidance also states that ‘any unfocused requests to browse patients’ files should be not (sic) be made’, how is a victim expected to open up about the psychological impact of their assault if they do so in the knowledge that if they say something of ‘interest’ it could be passed on to the defence?
The CPS thought they were reassuring victims, but they’ve done just the opposite. They’ve made it easier for their deeply private thoughts to be accessed and used against them.
Are the alleged rapist’s therapy notes used to build a case for prosecution? No.
In July 2020, the CPS published a five-year blueprint for rape and serious sexual offences, with the intention of ensuring offenders are brought to justice and victims are properly supported. The strategy included a commitment to ‘harnessing the opportunities of technology to support effective prosecutions, while balancing the rights of a fair trial with the right to privacy’.
Sexual assault and rape victims are often subjected to ‘digital strip searches’, during which their mobile phones and other tech devices are taken and forensically investigated in order to provide evidence for a potential trial.
Sometimes this takes less than 24 hours, sometimes their phones are taken away for weeks and even months. That alone could be reason enough for a victim to decide not to proceed with a prosecution.
When it comes to accessing conversations between a victim and their friends, I’m uncomfortable about the context in which they could be used in court.
As someone who has been sexually assaulted herself, I know there were times I hid the full truth to people who messaged me to ask about what had happened. I was still in shock.
Initially, I didn’t want my attacker to get in trouble, or for rumours to start, or to run the risk that I, myself could get in trouble, lose friends or even lose work as a result of people finding out what had taken place.
There were other people I could trust, to whom I disclosed the full truth from the beginning. I worried about how those former texts might have been interpreted if the case was taken to court.
Of course, every alleged criminal has the right to a fair trial, but victims also deserve the right to a fair pre-trial process. How is it fair that victims have their lives, their conversations, their medical history and therapy notes taken to pieces in order to mount a defence?
Is it any wonder that one in two victims withdraw from rape investigations?
It’s time we treated alleged rape victims like victims, not suspects.
Have you been affected by this storyline? Rape Crisis can help…
You can find information, support and advice by visiting Rape Crisis. 0808 802 999 is the confidential helpline number.