Research project aims to improve justice for sexual violence survivors during Covid-19

Victims of sexual offences could be helped by new research examining the criminal justice system during Covid-19.

A new project, led by Lancaster and Coventry Universities, will explore the impact of Covid-19 on the experiences of sexual violence survivors as their cases go through the criminal justice system (CJS).

The project, led by Lancaster University Law School and Coventry University’s Centre for Intelligent Healthcare, has been awarded £213,785 by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Rapid Response to COVID-19.

The research will aim to produce a series of recommendations to support the development of future policies and practices in responding to sexual offences.

Prior to the pandemic, the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences faced significant challenges, and Crown Prosecution Service data consistently highlighted extremely low conviction rates. There are concerns that Covid-19 could now be exacerbating some of the challenges that cause this, such as delays to investigating cases and the postponement of interviews and trials.

“People often say their lives are put on hold until the court case concludes,” says Principal Investigator Dr Lorna O’Doherty, from Coventry University’s Centre for Intelligent Healthcare.

“This includes not being able to access the types of emotional support needed for recovery and healing. “It is therefore important to understand what delays the process and what steps could be taken to support survivors in accessing help as soon as possible.”

The pandemic has accelerated the use of video technology, which was introduced to courts prior to the lockdown and has been a critical tool for enabling parties to engage remotely and securely, allowing some hearings to take place.

“Disruption of the status quo imposed by Covid provides new opportunities for individuals to engage with the CJS and in ways that potentially minimise distress,” added Dr O’Doherty. “But, we do not yet understand how all the parties involved feel about the use of these measures, or how they have impacted on the CJS process, and this is what this project will examine.”

The research will draw on a range of perspectives from participating institutions including the University of Leicester, Warwick University, University Hospitals Bristol and the Weston NHS Foundation Trust.

Researchers will work with survivors of sexual violence and abuse, the police (e.g. Avon and Somerset Constabulary), and other partners including The Survivors Trust, the Male Survivors Partnership, and the Judiciary, to conduct interviews to examine the impacts of Covid-19 on sexual offence cases.

“To date, there has been no review of the impact of Covid-19 on the whole criminal justice process, nor into the impact on journeys for survivors of sexual harms, from disclosure and reporting, to investigation, evidence-giving, trial, case disposal, and follow-on support,” says Co-lead of the project Dr Siobhan Weare, from Lancaster University Law School.

“We know there are unfortunately long-standing challenges faced by survivors when engaging with the criminal justice system, and it’s imperative that we understand how Covid-19 may have impacted their experiences so that recommendations for improvements can be made, both for the duration of this pandemic, but also going forwards in the longer term.”

The consortium will host a series of workshops to engage with relevant CJS stakeholders in developing knowledge, allowing the rapid release of project findings given the urgent need to address challenges in the justice system for survivors of sexual offences during the pandemic.

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