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Special Report: The impact of delays on survivors of non recent abuse

Delays in the criminal justice system regarding cases involving survivors of non-recent child sexual abuse are commonplace and can have a profound negative impact on the wellbeing of the victims and survivors.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse produced a report summarising the most prominent themes that emerged from five workshops and an online questionnaire about victims and survivors experiences of the criminal justice system.

“We heard several accounts of victims and survivors experiencing delays in the investigation process and that this had a profound impact on their wellbeing. Forum Members described having to put their lives on hold, and spoke about the impact of delays on their physical and mental health,” said the report.

“It was not uncommon to hear examples of Forum Members waiting up to three years before going to trial,” the report added.

The delays in the investigations were down to a number of factors including:

  • Officers’ caseloads
  • Lack of resources
  • Liaison with the CPS or other police forces
  • The complexity of the disclosure process.

One person described feeling extremely let down when they found out that their perpetrator had not been interviewed until almost a year after they first reported the offence. Another example that was cited was where delays had been caused by poor information sharing between forces, especially where a report had been about non-recent child sexual abuse.

One Forum Member spoke about their experience of delays after one police force had lost evidence that was relevant to inquiries being conducted by another force.

However individuals experience of the criminal justice system was affected more by the level of communication they received about the delays. While some forum members described examples of receiving meaningful updates from the police, others said that this was often following prompts from victims and survivors.

Some forum members reflected on a lack of communication and meaningful updates from the police on the progress of their investigation. Several described having to chase and follow up with investigators on multiple occasions to receive updates.

One survivor revealed how they had been challenged on one occasion by a police officer as to why they needed to be updated about everything that happened during the investigation. Others gave examples of where the police had arranged a call or meeting with victims and survivors and did not keep to these agreed times which caused significant impact on them, adding to the anxiety, distress and trauma they faced.

“Forum Members recounted waiting to hear about important developments in the investigation only for the call to come out of the blue, or at an inconvenient time. We heard that these calls were often unannounced and, therefore, victims and survivors did not feel prepared. Some also explained that they did not like to receive calls from withheld numbers as it made them feel anxious. One individual described how the most important and traumatising call about the investigation came when they were on holiday,” said the report.

“A shared view from those taking part in discussions was that the police should do more to map out with victims and survivors when they are likely to receive updates on key developments in the case. It was suggested that one way of doing this could be to provide notification of a call in advance, for example, by text message,” the report added.

Since then, however, the police and prosecutors have pledged to work more collaboratively together from the outset of investigations. The Crown Prosecution Service and National Police Chiefs’ Council have launched an additional collaborative commitment to build stronger rape prosecutions, increase the number of victims getting their say in court and minimise the time taken to reach a charging decision.

The move follows the Criminal Justice Joint Inspectorate report into the police and CPS response to rape which found there needs to be a fundamental change in how the two parties work together on these cases.

Police and CPS have signed up to the new approach which outlines how the CPS and investigators will work together more closely from the outset of rape and serious sexual assault cases through increased use of Early Advice.

The process of Early Advice means that police can consult a prosecutor on investigative strategy from the beginning of a case and talk through the evidence needed to build and strengthen it. It helps officers build strong cases by focusing the investigation on what is relevant and avoiding unnecessary enquiries into what is not.

The government's End to End Rape Review also pledged to improve victims' experiences of the criminal justice system .

Not only did victims and survivors experience delays during the investigation, but when they tried to access support services, there could be long waiting lists further exacerbating their distress and leaving them without much needed support.

Victims and survivors reported how the police had not made them aware of available support services or sign-posted them to help. A majority of Forum stressed the importance of there being readily available support for what is often a lengthy investigation process and there were accounts of victims and survivors not being able to find adequate support either during or after the investigation process. This included not knowing how to access support or being unable to access it at the right times.

A lack of locally available support services also meant some victims and survivors had to travel considerable distances to access help. Those with recent experiences with the police had limited awareness of the role of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVAs), and very few said that they had received support from an ISVA. An ISVA is an adviser who works with people who have experienced rape and sexual assault, irrespective of whether they have reported to the police. The nature of the support that an ISVA provides will vary from case to case and will depend on the needs of the individual and their particular circumstances.

Where Forum Members had been informed about support services, they often experienced delays and waiting lists of between six months and several years. One Forum Member reported that in their local area, the waiting list for a counselling service was five years. There were examples of victims and survivors spending years on a waiting list before paying to access private services themselves, as they could no longer wait. One Forum Member described waiting two years for a statutory service, before ultimately paying for private counselling. Another said they felt lucky to be able to afford to access private services.

There was some agreement that the referral process and signposting by the police had improved in recent years. One forum member described a positive experience, having been signposted to a Sexual Assault Referral Assault Centre. The provision of support services was described as a ‘postcode lottery’.

The report also highlighted other concerns with the criminal justice system in dealing with investigations of non recent child sexual abuse which included:

  • A perception that police officers were not consistently well trained in how they handled reports of child sexual abuse.
  • Victims and survivors reported receiving cold, clinical or insensitive treatment from police officers when they reported their abuse.
  • Many Forum Members explained that the initial police response made them feel that they weren’t being believed, that the allegations they had made weren’t that serious, or that they were being treated as a suspect rather than a victim or survivor.
  • A common example cited was having to repeat traumatic accounts multiple times, and to different officers, with the police not always recognising the impact that this may have.
  • A recurring theme from all the feedback that the Inquiry received was that the police approach to the investigation was intrusive, challenging and exhausting.
  • One Forum Member stated that disclosures about their mental health were used to question their accounts. Similarly, another explained how they were reluctant to speak to a counsellor about the abuse they had suffered because there was a risk that their evidence would not be believed.

Forum members reported that interactions with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had made them feel that they were just a case number, or a witness, rather than a ‘living’ victim and survivor.

  • One of the most prominent themes that emerged was the perception that there was an ‘inequality of arms’ in the court process. Many of our Forum Members shared a common view that there was not a level playing field.
  • Forum Members did not feel at all prepared for the court process.
  • Forum Members explained that the court process was adversarial, and that they were often left to manage the impact of this themselves.
  • Overall, most of the victims and survivors we spoke to felt that the system was not adequately victim and survivor focused.
  • Concerns were also raised over the way victims and survivors are stigmatised by the system and wider society.

“A key theme that emerged from the discussions was that when the system does not work it can be extremely traumatic and, in many cases we heard, it added to the trauma that victims and survivors had already faced. There was a particular focus on the impact of delays, and the length of the overall process, on health and wellbeing. One Forum Member described the impact of the criminal justice system on them as ‘soul destroying’. Others described the negative impact of multiple adjournments, sometimes at short notice, on their health. We heard several people say that given what they now know, they would find it difficult to encourage others to engage with the criminal justice system,” the report concluded.

Victims and Survivors Forum Consultation on the Criminal Justice System: Summary Report

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