By Nazmin Akthar (Co-Chair of Muslim Women's Network UK)
Yet another report, published last week by leading women’s rights organisations (Imkaan, Centre for Women’s Justice, Rape Crisis England & Wales & the EVAW coalition), highlights the abominable handling of rape cases within the criminal justice system. The report finds that despite 55, 259 incidents of rape being reported last year, there were only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions.
The findings are very much in line with the report published last year by Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK), which looked at Muslim women’s experiences of the criminal justice system, and highlighted the added hurdles and barriers faced by Muslim women when attempting to access justice. Notably both reports have highlighted serious issues with the Victim’s Right to Review (VRR) and the case is made once again for an urgent need for reform of the VRR.
In 2011 (in the case of R v Killick), the Court made clear that a victim has a right to seek a review of a CPS decision not to prosecute, that there should be a clear procedure which allows them to do so and that victims should not have to seek a judicial review in order to obtain answers. The VRR was introduced to give effect to these principles but evidence suggests that it has fallen short on all these counts, with last weeks report highlighting the following:
“Where a VRR has taken place, in the DCI letters to the survivors informing them of the VRR decision not being overturned, Rape Crisis ISVAs have cited a number of issues. These include basic issues such as spelling the victim/survivor’s name incorrectly, generic and vague cut and pasting from templates, not referencing the case, and a general lack of any care or compassion towards the recipient”.
What’s even more worrying is the fact that the option of VRR is in itself a matter of luck, as highlighted by a case study in MWNUK’s report. The 2019 shared the harrowing experience of a young Muslim woman who had been gang-raped by a group of men. With the support of her family, she reported all her perpetrators to the police but despite being able to identify all her rapists, only one was charged and the only explanation she was given was that it was due to ‘evidential reasons’; a comment that raised more questions in her mind than answered any. To make matters worse, her case did not fall within the definition of a 'qualifying decision' and therefore, she did not have the right to seek a review of the decision not to prosecute. There are no words to describe the devastating impact this news had on her.
VRR is not available in circumstances where charges are brought in respect of some (but not all) allegations made or against some (but not all) suspects and as one of the alleged perpetrators had been charged, the victim in this case was not entitled to a review. Or to put it more bluntly, she was not entitled to question why the others were not being held accountable for the abuse and trauma they had inflicted on her. It is perhaps unsurprisingly that this victim dis-engaged from the criminal justice system and the trial did not proceed.
VRR is also not available where single charge or charges are terminated but another charge or related charges continue, or where proceedings against one (or more) defendants are terminated but related proceedings against other defendants continue.
Thus, not only is VRR limited in application as not all victims have equal access to VRR, it is actually having a disempowering effect. It is hard for any victim of sexual abuse to come forward and still harder for Muslim women and those from other BAME backgrounds due to the prevalence of a culture of shame and honour. Speaking up can mean ostracisation and perhaps even more abuse, including honour-based abuse. When victims make a report of rape or sexual abuse, they are taking a colossal step both personally and for women and women’s rights everywhere. They are placing their trust in the criminal justice system and if they are failed, they are likely to be silenced forever – and with them many other victims and those at risk. Not only is the system currently unable to give them justice but is also unable to provide them with adequate reasons as to why. This unfairness must end. VRR must be reformed now.
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