Victims of child sex abuse are being traumatised again by our failing justice system

Those who themselves obtained criminal convictions while being groomed are paradoxically barred from applying from compensation – as are those who are bizarrely perceived to have ‘consented’ to their abuse

Sarah Champion
Wednesday 23 October 2019 14:56 BST
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MPs like me are well aware that survivors of childhood sexual abuse face problems with the court and judicial process, and the government needs to make urgent changes. I have worked with almost 400 survivors over the last year to understand these problems so that we can improve the chances of obtaining justice for victims of abuse.

After experiencing the trauma of child sexual abuse, it can take many decades to feel ready to share their experiences and pursue criminal proceedings. However, too many find the court process to be gruelling, confusing and seemingly without end.

The issues begin shortly after a trial date has been announced. Survivors – many of whom are attending a court for the first time – say they are not given appropriate information about what to expect. Frustratingly, many also experience long delays or postponements.

Delays are especially problematic when survivors are mentally prepared to go through the experience, only to see their case pushed back at the last minute. Delays can also have practical implications on survivors’ work and childcare arrangements. They describe difficulties in having to explain to their employer their reasons for time off and, for those who are summonsed to court, there is no statutory right to paid leave.

Survivor after survivor described trying to balance their mental wellbeing, family and work with an overriding sense of responsibility to ensure their abuser is prevented from causing further harm. These are very real and practical issues that matter to survivors when they are pursuing justice.

When a trial finally begins, victims of abuse often describe it as a process of re-traumatisation. Many survivors face questions about their sexual history from the defence. Judges should spot a barrister trying to encourage the jury to believe in “rape myths” (that a victim asked for it or was sexually promiscuous), but I’ve been told this rarely happens. Special measures exist, such as giving evidence behind a screen or remotely, however, two in five survivors were not offered this opportunity.

A key objective of the justice system must be to obtain the highest quality evidence for the jury. Just imagine how difficult it must be to sit in the same room as your abuser and describe what they did to you. The government should legislate to give survivors an automatic right to such special measures.

Public confidence in the justice system also relies in part on the knowledge that offenders will receive punishments that are commensurate with their crime. Yet survivors told me time and again that, once their abuser has been found guilty at trial, the sentence handed down was inexplicably lenient. Others argued that they had no voice in their abuser’s parole hearing. This could be addressed by government policymakers talking directly to survivors about the lifelong impact of abuse and giving them an increased presence in parole board hearings.

Survivors also face a litany of issues when applying to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Surely, after all the evidence-gathering that occurs after a survivor reports abuse to police, the scheme could operate in a streamlined and effective manner whereby the victim consents to information sharing and receives an award based on the evidence heard at court?

Instead, survivors are forced to embark upon a Byzantine process that often ends in failure. The compensation scheme can provide a crutch that enables them to rebuild their lives by taking part in training, education or counselling. So why does the government make it so hard for survivors to claim what is rightfully theirs?

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Indeed, those who themselves obtained criminal convictions while they were being groomed and exploited by their abusers are paradoxically barred from applying for compensation – as are those who are bizarrely perceived to have “consented” to their abuse. The scheme’s rules fail to reflect our understanding of the grooming process; they must be urgently updated.

In recent weeks, we have seen the government make lots of noise about its commitment to law and order. If they are committed to that principle, then the simple and achievable recommendations of my inquiry can make an immediate difference for victims of sexual abuse. Taken together, these steps will improve survivors’ experience of the court process, remove barriers to the provision of good evidence for the jury and restore confidence in the justice system.

Warm words and promised action is not enough. The government now needs to act.

Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

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