Rape victims failed by bail system, urgent reform needed

Unique study reveals devastating impact on victims when bail is granted to convicted & suspected rapists

Today (20 July) a new study by researcher Sarah Learmonth, A system to keep me safe: an exploratory study of bail use in rape cases, for the first time outlines the criminal justice system’s failure to protect victims of rape, by granting bail to men convicted of rape and men charged with rape. 

By Sarah Learmonth

Victims voices have yet to be heard in the legal reform discussions on bail at any point, suggesting their views are considered irrelevant to the debate.

Despite women who experience sexual violence being at increased risk of reprisals, no bail legislation or recent reform has taken their experience into account. Most victims of rape know their attacker who is often an intimate partner, friend member of the family or an acquaintance. Yet the current system ignores this reality with devastating consequences for the victim.

My study reveals the devastating impact on victims of granting bail to men convicted of rape awaiting sentencing. Some victims have had to psychologically prepare for trials while their attacker, often known to them, has moved in near their own home. The bail conditions can leave victims at greater risk of intimidation, more likely to drop charges and could actually reduce a woman’s safety.

As one victim said of her rape case: “He moved within two hundred feet of my house… he used what he could within what his bail conditions were, so he moved over the road, to watch me instead. It was an abuse in itself… for him to see me… it was horrific… and I don’t understand how he was allowed to do it.” (Rhiannon)

My study reveals there have been cases where convicted rapists have absconded from court appearances following bail, while other victims have been left to cope with the suicide of a family member who has been convicted of their rape, often without any explanation or support from authorities.

Nicole, whose father was convicted of raping her, said : “He admitted to his crimes, he pleaded guilty, he was found guilty… bail – they released him. He’s killed himself and he’s left a suicide note blaming me. I was told by my police officer and the barrister, he was going to get 18 years in prison. That morning… I was homeless… I had no family and the only father I had known… killed himself.” (Nicole).

When a rape suspect was arrested, questioned and conditional bail was granted, it suggested to family and friends that the allegation was serious and influenced the level of support and safeguarding victims received.

However the police force in the study had seen a huge reduction in the use of pre-charge bail for sexual offence allegations since the changes to bail legislation in April 2017.

“Post-April… our office [Sexual Offences Team] conditional bail rate has probably dropped by about 80%. We can’t work this system.” (Police Officer)

The outcome is that many victims are left deeply disillusioned by a system which appears to advantage rapists not victims of rape.

A system to keep me safe: an exploratory study of bail use in rape cases, calls for a series of recommendations:

Research with victim-survivors is essential to establish the full extent of safety gaps and their locations in the bail process, building on those identified in this study, exploring their implications for criminal and civil justice legislation, policy and practice. In particular the implementation of:

  • Immediate and unconditional protection for victim-survivors who report to the police and decision-making on post-conviction bail.
  • Research to further identify/substantiate the influence of applying bail conditions in cases of sexual violence on the responses of other agencies and institutions, including workplaces, schools and universities. In particular the influence on safeguarding and protection.
  • Research to further identify/substantiate the impact of bail arrangements on a victim-survivor’s physical and mental health, her future relationship with her family and her recovery.
  • Clarify the accessibility of Civil Orders to victim-survivors when bail, with or without conditions, has been granted.
  • The scope of the VPS should explicitly and unequivocally include obtaining victim-survivors’ views on bail conditions/protection needs.
  • Comprehensive pre-charge and post-conviction bail data should be collected and published by the accountable Ministry for the purposes of review and possible reform. This should include associated conditions and breaches including absconding, reoffending and suicides.
  • To avoid misrepresentation, criminal justice agencies need to audit the messages they promote, to ensure they accurately reflect the reality of what they offer and what victims and victim-survivors need and expect from them.

Gaps in the safety and protection needs of women who report rape must be addressed from the point of reporting, throughout the criminal justice process and beyond conviction.

It is of paramount importance that victim-survivors effectively participate in discussions on legislation and policy to meet these basic needs.

Sarah Learmonth (MA in Woman and Child Abuse) is an activist and researcher specialising in tackling violence against women and girls. 

The findings of the study are supported by the End Violence Against Women Coalition

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