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Helping Survivors Through the Legal Process - Chat Transcript

The Pandora's Aquarium chat room welcomed Lisa Longstaff as a guest speaker on June 2, 2008.   Longstaff heads up Women Against Rape (WAR) in the UK.
Learn more about WAR on its website: womenagainstrape.net

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Stephanie: Welcome everyone and thank you for coming. We will get started in a moment. Before we start just a reminder of how things will run. For the first half of the chat we will be asking pre-selected questions then during the second half of the chat we will be opening the floor to questions from members

Firstly thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us about your work Lisa. I know our members are really looking forward to hearing about it.

QUESTION: Can you start by telling us a bit about WAR, how WAR started and the work that they do.

Lisa: We are a multi racial self help group that provides support to survivors seeking, justice, asylum and compensation. How we started: a few women got together who were fed up with the way the courts and the media were so sympathetic to rapists.

They were infuriated by a judge refusing to send a man to prison for a very serious sexual assault after he was found guilty by a jury, just because it may damage his army career. They began to picket and invade the courts, and wrote to the media. The big wigs were shocked out of their minds when a group of these women even invaded a judges private club, chanting, hung banners outside and they got loads of publicity!

We take up people’s cases and we sometimes advocate, which means we represent them, and press for the resources they should be getting, but can’t get without help e.g., we see a lot of asylum seekers who are denied basic legal representation and are sometimes destitute; they can sometimes get the help the need if they have someone like us backing them who speaks good English and knows their rights.

We sometimes go to police or court with women. We have helped set a number of legal precedents, including helping two sex workers bring the first successful private prosecution for rape in 1995. And we
campaign for change, using tools like the media and petitions, or putting pressure on politicians.

QUESTION: London is a big cosmopolitan city with no Rape Crisis Centre. Has WAR been able to fill that gap in any way?

Lisa: No we have not. There is a huge gap with lots of women getting no help whatsoever, and the most you seem to be able to get if you are lucky is a bit of counselling or therapy.

We have for years been very fed up that groups don’t take on any casework, let alone activism - so many women’s groups have just become another social service. We have always fought hard to maintain our independence from the authorities. We think it's a really important step to try to get justice, because without that you are left with the impression it was your fault, or even wasn't a crime.

Question: That leads me nicely on to my next question as I know that you paid a price for that independence in terms of your funding.

Lisa: Yes in 2003 our grant was stopped. We only had a small grant (one paid worker), but its loss caused us severe difficulties. Our work has always depended heavily on volunteers. But we were determined not to be closed down, so we initially stopped taking on new cases, did a lot of fundraising, and then re-launched ourselves.

We are very good at making scarce resources go further. We have a lot of supporters, as we have helped many thousands of women over the years.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about WAR's work in getting marital rape criminalised?

Lisa: It was always central to our work ever since 1976 when we started. Back then, some feminist groups were hostile to us even raising the issue, they used to say it was widening the issue. But we always took it as central to every woman’s right to say no regardless of the relationship.

That campaign made a way for date rape to be acknowledged years later. We campaigned for 15 years we did all kinds of things like getting media interviews for women affected, holding public meetings, petitions, parliamentary motions, we submitted written evidence to official legal bodies, like the Criminal Law Revision Committee, which we then published as a book, The Rapist Who Pays the Rent. And we went to meet influential people to press them to change the law. Finally, we went to court with a woman whose legal case helped change the caselaw, and when they changed the law on paper we were ejected from the House of Lords for cheering!

QUESTION: A huge step forward for women trying to get justice! What do you consider the key problems facing women trying to get justice and protection from rape to be?

Lisa: Basically, the police and CPS are not doing the job well, and the people at the top are reluctant to impose any sanction when they mess up the cases, so there is little incentive to improve. Rape is too low in the list of police priorities, and too manycases are closed by the CPS.

We have complained about some really shocking examples of evidence being lost, or not even gathered. It can take months for them to arrest a man. Sometimes the police have decided not to do forensic tests as it costs money. And appalling prejudice from the CPS (the Crown Prosecution Service), who are very reluctant to charge the man with more than one offence, and are always eager to find a weakness rather than solve it.

Lisa: They can ask the police to reinvestigate, but they rarely do. In court they are lazy, unprepared, snooty, and often prejudiced against the victim. Also judges are sometimes dreadful. Women who have been drinking face a lot of prejudice, and in court it is often argued that they may have consented to sex earlier in the evening. It is convenient to publicly blame juries, but juries can only go by the evidence presented to them.

QUESTION: What changes would you like to see in the legal system?

Lisa: To tighten the rule on when they can raise your sexual history in court. We had a big public campaign on this in 2000, but the new law that was introduced is totally ineffective, as we said at the time. UK rape law was updated in 2003 and in theory many legal procedures have been improved, but the implementation is lacking. Nobody is ensuring it all happens properly.

For example we have been saying for years that women should be able to prepare their case with the prosecuting lawyer, otherwise how can they defend her when she is trashed in court. But the CPS is still dragging its feet.

QUESTION: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to report a rape to the authorities?

Lisa: Firstly always take someone one with you; try to take someone who will stay calm. If you cannot think of someone appropriate you can call victim support or your local rape crisis centre.

Do not shower, change your clothes or clean your teeth as this may destroy important evidence. Keep on top of your case- you have every right to ask about the evidence the police have collected and how your case is progressing. If you send letters or have conversations with the police regarding your case keep copies and a diary of all contact.

If things seem to be starting to go wrong or the police are hostile to you get your MP to act on your behalf. They can get questions answered for you, when the police may ignore you.

QUESTION: Many of our members are interested in seeing change take place. How can individual people get involved in activism against rape either in the UK or in their own countries?

Lisa: Find some other people who want to be activists as well through the local paper, the internet, women’s centres and get your friends involved! Either find an existing group against rape or set up something of your own.

Discuss your experiences, how it affects you, try to back each other in your efforts to get justice and take some public action eg write to your local paper or your MP, have pickets or circulate your own petition, or a website.

Stephanie: Thank you for answering those Lisa. I am going to hand over to Jennifer now who is going to ask questions on behalf of our members.

MEMBER QUESTION: Are your services available to male victims as well?

Lisa: Yes we try to help, but there are support services that specifically work with men, who we can sometimes refer people to.

MEMBER QUESTION: I wish I had been better educated BEFORE my rape occurred as to how to handle the situation immediately following. Does WAR involve itself in helping to make women more aware of what to do in the aftermath of a rape?
Lisa: Our focus has been to press for better treatment and justice for survivors, as there have been quite a lot of other groups giving advice about what to do after a rape. but we are working on putting out this kind of advice.

MEMBER QUESTION: Can you tell us about your campaign to get rape recognised as torture and therefore grounds for asylum?

Lisa: Rape is not explicitly recognised under the UN convention on Refugees as persecution or torture and therefore grounds for asylum in the UK. It is estimated that at least 50% of women asylum seekers have been raped. Asylum seeking women face the same disbelief from officials that survivors face in British rape trials. At hearings, the Home Office even adopts the persona of a rape defence lawyer in order to try to discredit the woman’s account.

The majority of women we see are from countries in Africa, and they are also up against a wall of racism, stoked up by the hostile media, so they are routinely assumed to be lying, and often are treated as criminals rather than traumatised injured victims.

We raise the issue publicly, and provide vital support to hundreds of women. Last year we published Misjudging Rape: Breaching Gender Guidelines & International Law in Asylum Appeals. Co-authored by BWRAP (Black Women’s Rape Action Project), this dossier examines the treatment of rape survivors claiming asylum and documents how immigration judges flout international law and their own Asylum Gender Guidelines in their rulings.

The Dossier reveals that 43% of judges completely disbelieved women’s reports of rape. As a result of our findings, an Early Day Motion was presented in Parliament, calling for women seeking asylum to be treated according to international precedents and guidelines. We are also supporting rape survivors in Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre (estimated to be over 70% of the women there).

A rota of dedicated volunteers, including women who have been detained themselves, provides daily support to rape survivors trying to pursue their asylum claims despite huge obstacles. Many women are being denied access to a lawyer, and many are being sent back. We are also helping to gather signatures on a petition to get rape recognised as torture and therefore grounds for asylum.

MEMBER QUESTION: What are your goals/ambitions for the future in regards to the work you are doing?

Lisa: We're building a strong group helping each other in our various personal efforts for justice etc, and we want to press the authorities to take disciplinary action against those who aren't doing their job properly and are letting rapists off the hook. We want them to go as far as sacking people who undermine women's cases, we've launched a petition calling for this (see our website).

MEMBE QUESTION: What advice would you give to someone who never reported an offence but is considering it? There is no evidence, would basically be a "he said" "she said" situation?...in your opinion is it worth reporting?

Lisa: It's so hard to judge in the abstract. If they want to call us, or email we could go through the case with them. But hey, it’s a personal decision, and at least you would have put them on record and if someone else reported the same man, it is more likely to be taken seriously if it happened a long time ago. They can put the case
together, as they do sometimes with child abuse. It is really down to each woman to decide if she wants to go through that process, not an easy route.

MEMBER QUESTION: My rape case got as far as the CPS who last week threw it out claiming that because I couldn't remember it happening there is no case. How if it is possible, can I take out a private prosecution, I am on Incapacity benefit so can get legal aid, but I believe it cannot be claimed and used for a private prosecution, is this true and do you have any advice?

Lisa: We have done only one private prosecution, which set a precedent, but we had to find a lawyer who would act for free. So this rules it out for most cases. I think you are right you can't get legal aid, but I'd have to check that for sure, please contact us.

MEMBER QUESTION: What kind of feedback do you get about your work at WAR?

Lisa: The most gratifying thing is when you see a transformation in a woman after she has been battling against the system for a while and suddenly she gets help which propels her and makes her feel she is a protagonist rather than a victim and she is not alone.

MEMBER QUESTION: Can you recommend mini-projects for fledgling activists?

Lisa: Decide what your target is and go for it - a few people can be very effective.

Lisa: Thanks a lot for all your interest and support, it's been really good being in touch, wish we had more time.

Stephanie: We have sadly run out of time - we had many great questions and I am sorry we couldn't get through them all. Thank you for your time.

Jennifer: Thank you for all the wonderful information that you have given us as well.

Lisa: Let's keep in touch, don’t forget our website www.womenagainstrape.net.

Jennifer: And thank you to all of our members for coming and all of the great questions!

Stephanie: Yes thank you to everyone and good night or good morning depending on where you are.


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