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Sociology: Enhancing criminal justice practice and processes in rape trials

Dr Olivia Smith

This research project by Dr Smith looked into rape trials in England and Wales. Court observation informed criminal justice practice and enhanced justice through improved court practices during trial.

The research led to benefit criminal justice practitioners, policy makers, non-government organisations (NGOs) and campaign groups, and, indirectly, rape complainants.

Research summary

Dr Smith’s research helped develop policy and practice, respectful and fair responses to rape complaints continue to be hampered by apparent contradictions:

  • interviewed complainants assert that rape trials were a traumatic experience
  • legal professionals argue they are conducted to ensure all evidence is heard.

This study comprised of the first comprehensive observation of the full rape trial process in England and Wales since significant legislation was introduced in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The court observation methodology developed by Dr Smith allowed the study of proceedings in court to move beyond contrasting perspectives to closely examine the trial process.

The research undertook detailed further analysis of court observation findings and rape trials policy, examining the practical aspects of trials and found several causes of inefficiency and distress, such as delays, problems with evidence disclosure, and inadequate witness facilities. It argued that these practicalities are often trivialised or ignored during trials but are central to justice as they represent access to meaningful participation.

Another finding showed that ‘rape myths’ remain prevalent at trial despite some challenges by prosecution barristers and judges. While policy debates had focused on the importance of training legal professionals about rape, problematic attitudes were not the main cause of rape myths being used in trial narratives. Instead, it suggested that rape myths were used because of the adversarial imperative to win and the rationalist legal tradition, which dismisses complainants’ evidence as irrational and untruthful.

In 2018, Dr Smith published a monograph, Rape Trials in England and Wales: Observing Justice and Rethinking Rape Myths, this examined the deep-rooted barriers to survivor justice during rape trials and introduced potential avenues for more effective reform. It developed previous outputs by demonstrating that controversial evidence about the complainant’s sexual history was being used routinely at trial, mostly to explain evidence introduced by the prosecution.

The book argued that most policy aimed at improving trial experiences is undermined by the influence of wider societal inequalities, for example, women complainants were dismissed as irrational and therefore untrustworthy in a variety of intersecting ways depending on their perceived social class, disability, and ethnicity.

Statue representing royal courts of justice holding the Scales of Justice

Summary of the impact

  • Influenced the initiation of the first system of court inspection in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • Improved knowledge and practice of criminal justice practice among third sector organisations, police, prosecutors, probation, housing and social work services and Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs)
  • Provided an evidence base for reviews of rape trials, non-government organisation (NGO) campaigns and media coverage of rape trial reform

Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO


Between 2015 and 2016, Dr Smith’s trial observations and the benefits of the court observer method, led the then Police, Fire & Crime Commissioner for Northumbria (now Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales) to pilot a volunteer court observer panel (COP).

The panel observed 30 rape trials and in 2017 its findings led to national policy debate in which Dr Smith’s research was cited as initiating the scheme.

The court observer panel was implemented in Northern Ireland in 2018, and Smith delivered a training package for Victim Support Northern Ireland.

The Commissioner also expanded the court observer panel to Specialist Domestic Violence Courts in Northumbria. The Commissioner noted that, 'without Dr Smith’s original research… these important changes would not have been possible'.

Between 2017 and 2020 Dr Smith has delivered training to practitioners from third sector organisations, police, prosecutors, probation, housing and social work services, as well as presenting at the Annual Rape Crisis Conference to approximately 400 ISVAs, on the use of evidence in investigations, prosecution of sexual violence and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.

This has made ISVAs “more equipped to support and inform through the trial process, leading to increased survivor engagement with the Criminal Justice System”, according to the Chairwoman of Rape Crisis England & Wales.

In Northern Ireland, the Gillen Review into rape trials highlighted the COP as key to sustainable change in future.

Dr Smith’s research is a significant evidence-base for national reviews into rape trials and for NGOs and women’s organisations campaigning for legal reform of rape trials focusing on the behaviour of the complainant, rather than the defendant.

The Gillen Review into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences ran from 2017 to 2019 and produced over 250 recommendations. Dr Smith is cited throughout Gillen’s final report as support for the recommendation to introduce legal representation for complainants, maintain the status quo on defendant anonymity, collect better data on complainants from marginalised groups, and retain juries for rape cases.

In 2019, Dr Smith’s research informed the England and Wales Judicial Studies Board’s rape review methodology. The research is also used by leading campaign groups. Since 2014 Rape Crisis have quoted Dr Smith’s findings in their consultation with policy makers, such as the National Council of Police Chiefs, Cross-Governmental rape review, and Home Office working groups for the Victims Code and Witness Strategy.

Dr Smith also informed an extensive cross-party campaign in 2018, signed by 9 organisations, 17 members of parliament and 6 Baronesses, to change the law on sexual history evidence during rape trials.

The central evidence to this campaign was the Seeing is Believing Report which used court observations informed by Smith’s initial research. The End Violence Against Women (EVAW) Coalition’s Rape Justice Fail campaign was informed by Dr Smith’s observation research, as a result of the EVAW Coalition campaign, there was a major Guardian newspaper campaign.

Media coverage reaching approximately 25,179,000 listeners in 2019 raised awareness of issues within rape trials highlighted by Dr Smith’s research and policy reform.

Read more about read more about the evidence-base for the northern irish gillen review into rape trials, the judicial studies board rape review, non-government organisation (ngo) campaigns and media coverage of rape reform.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, target 5.2.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 21: Enhancing criminal justice practice and processes in rape trials

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