With Oona Brooks-Hay and Michele Burman, SCCJR, University of Glasgow / March 2018 – December 2020.
What are the end to end experiences of survivors of rape and sexual assault who access the criminal justice system?
Justice Journeys studied criminal justice responses to rape and sexual assault, focusing on the experiences of survivor-participants who had engaged with the criminal justice system. Survivors of rape and sexual assault are often defined as hard to reach in research terms and fewer than one in five report to the police. At the same time, survivors’ voices are frequently underrepresented and marginalised within the criminal justice process and public narratives. Mindful of inherent sensitivities involved in working with survivors of rape, this research proceeded in close partnership with community support organisations, including Rape Crisis Scotland, to engage with participants. This resulted in interviews with participants that were rich and detailed, ranging beyond their own criminal justice experiences, to the effects of the process on families, friends and wider communities.
The resulting report, ‘Justice Journeys: informing policy and practice through lived experience of victim-survivors of rape and serious sexual assault’ documents the experiences of survivors as they navigated the Scottish criminal justice system. It begins with the decision to report to the police and continues through to investigation, prosecution, trial and court verdict. We learned that the difficulties survivors face when seeking criminal justice occur at multiple stages throughout this process. Some take place at identifiable points, such as the re-traumatising experience of providing a police statement or during questioning at trial about intimate sexual matters, including challenges to credibility and reliability, within an adversarial context. Other difficulties, however, are far more generalised and occur throughout the process and include: mis-matches between survivors’ expectations and experiences; inadequate communication between officials and survivors; the lengthy duration of the process; the physical environments of police stations and courts; survivors’ concern about their safety; their feeling of being marginal to the process; perceptions of the system being weighted in favour of the accused; the belief that the current system does not adequately represent their interests, the list goes on.
What methods can help make survivors’ experiences and more visible within research?
Our ongoing engagement with participants also confirmed a clear need to seek more creative and publicly accessible ways to represent the fullness of their ‘justice’ stories, beyond conventional research reports and publications. In response we used creative practices to engage with and represent survivors’ stories and devised arts-based workshops to facilitate storytelling. Over a period of two years we worked closely with individual participants to draw out their testimonies and produce their representations, including images and other arts-based creative pieces, such as poetry, stained glass, and photographs that were specially produced or selected by the survivors to represent their individual journey. The collective work was launched in December 2020 as an online exhibition Justice Journeys: Survivor Stories.
How might arts-based research and ‘storytelling’ bring about transformations for the survivors, the general public and the criminal justice system?
There are early indicators of its potential in benefiting survivors, policy makers and influencing wider publics. Launched as part of the 16-days of action on violence against women the project attracted national media coverage, including feature segments on BBC Radio Scotland and STV. Since launch, the website has been viewed over 7,000 times, by 1,800 unique visitors from more than 30 countries, and its reach in this regard has been formally recognised in winning a University of Glasgow Research Culture and Engagement Award 2021 in the category of Best Community and Public Engagement.
The importance of Justice Journeys has also been recognised at policy level where the team have been invited to present the research and the exhibition to the Lord Justice Clerk’s Judicial Review of Sexual Offence Cases; the Scottish Government’s Victim’s Taskforce, led by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice; the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Women and Justice; and the Scottish Government’s Violence Against Women Team. Police Scotland have expressed interest in using the website material as case studies in their national rape campaign work.
For the survivors who took part, the experience has been described as transformative:
Justice Journeys gave me a space to be heard, to share my rage and despair, and to feel that I could at least use my experience to positive effect. Survivors’ voices matter, and the failure of the criminal justice system to effectively deliver justice for survivors should concern us all.Emma
I’d like to thank everyone in the Justice Journeys team for their sensitivity and support during our conversations. The creative element of the project has helped me so much. It’s given me an opportunity to express painful images and memories through writing and artworks, and in turn this has had such a positive impact on my own healing journey. I can’t thank the team enough for all their work in helping give survivors a voice.Suzy
Justice Journeys gave me back something of my own narrative, which I felt had been taken from me as soon as the justice system was involved.Eve
Being involved in Justice Journeys has helped me heal … I hope the Justice Journeys project gives some comfort, hope and strength to anyone after a sexual assault to know that you can live through this and come out the other side… not as a victim but as a SURVIVOR.Poppy
Viewed collectively, the work, the stories, speak not simply of survivors’ journey into and through the criminal justice system, but tells of the personal transformations that took place when they were given permission to speak and a space to do so. The project serves as a powerful and necessary reminder of a transformative form of justice that is possible where subjugated voices emerge amidst the din of dominant justice discourse. This cannot be the only justice response, but it is an important one, nonetheless.
Click here to visit Justice Journeys: Survivor Stories. You can read the report below, or follow the link to download: