“What were you wearing?” – How the Criminal Justice System is Failing to Deliver Access to Justice for Women who are Victims of Sexual Assault and Rape

By Sarika Bhatia


The European Court of Human Rights recently conducted a study that drew attention to the fact that a very small number of the applications received are filled by women. When analysing this, they pointed out that this reflects the obstacles that women face, including a lack of resources, confidence, awareness, as well as cultural and socioeconomic barriers. What is perhaps the most significant point about this is that such obstacles were noted to be of particular importance in the case of victims of violence and discrimination.


Where are women facing issues in gaining access to justice?
Some of the most notable areas in which women struggle to gain access to justice is in sexual assault cases, and the reasons for this are rather clear when examining the process women must go through to report a case of sexual assault.


It is key to note here that sexual offences are not limited to rape, but also include any attempts at rape, unwanted touching and being forced to perform other sexual acts. Victims of sexual offences do not only experience physical consequences of the crime, but also emotional and psychological harms that continue to last for long after the event, which unfortunately for women, sends the crimes into a realm where it is much harder to present a case that stands up to the interrogation that female victims are subject to in court.


Between 2020-2021, the CPS reported that the Covid-19 pandemic did not lead to a reduction in rape cases, instead, it led to a rise in cases by almost 5%. Furthermore, there were 330 fewer convictions for rape, and Home Office figures show that whilst there were 52,210 rape cases recorded in England and Wales in 2020, only 1.6% of these resulted in a charge or summons, and so it is no wonder that women across the world feel inclined to choose to save themselves the distress of being interrogated and humiliated in court, being asked to prove their trauma and even blamed for it, when there is so little chance that the perpetrator will be put behind bars. We can see the reasons for women’s apprehension to report sexual offences through data published by the Office of National Statistics, wherein it was reported that fewer than 1/6 victims of sexual assault reported their experience to the police, with 40% citing embarrassment for their reason to not report, 38% believing that the police would not help (an idea that is supported through the fact that despite there being 3,539 receipts of rape, only 1,557 prosecutions were completed, and 34% thinking that the process would be humiliating. In a study of a sample of survivors of sexual offences, only 5% ‘strongly agreed’ and only 9% ‘agreed’ that survivors could obtain justice by reporting to the police and a total of only 42% agreed that the police treated them fairly and with respect, further reflecting the issues women face in gaining access to justice.


And so, when it is so difficult to convict people for the most serious of the sexual offences under the 2003 act, one can only imagine just how many victims of sexual offences are unable to access any form of justice, or indeed even knowing that what they are going through constitutes sexual assault.


The experience of women seeking to obtain justice in the courts is also subject to multiple sources of discrimination. Women are firstly at a disadvantage due to their gender, since women are questioned and interrogated in front of a court (in which only 32% of judges are female) and subject to cross examination by defenders of the perpetrators. Alongside this initial disadvantage, factors such as their ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, and even the way that a woman dresses, can also be used against women in the court, sometimes not even consciously- we live in a society where the media has built up an image of women: of what a good woman is, what a bad woman is and how women are evil and manipulative, an image that dates back centuries, this rhetoric can be seen in research by End Violence Against Women International where it is pointed out that implicit assumptions and stereotypes ‘define behaviours that are seen as acceptable and appropriate for women, in contrast to those that are acceptable and appropriate for men. For example, why do we so often accept heavy drinking as an excuse for bad (or even criminal) behaviour by men, while heavy drinking by women is viewed as culpability for their own victimisation?, this point draws attention to the fact that society has developed particular expectations of what they think a woman should be, and also that these rules are exclusive to women, with men either applauded or excused for behaviours that women are judged and condemned for.


In order to provide women a fairer chance at obtaining justice in cases of rape and sexual assault, we must work within society to change the way that women are perceived, we must challenge how they are portrayed in the media and dealt with in courts, we must stop acting as though a woman must fulfil certain criteria for her experiences of rape and sexual assault to be validated and we must make women more aware of their rights and the ways that they should never be treated, it is only then where society can make a start in giving women a fair shot at access to justice in sexual assault.


Ways to do this include making going to trial for sexual offences a less traumatic experience for women, perhaps by letting them testify via a video link, which the covid-19 pandemic has already reflected for us is a perfectly viable method of testifying. It would also be of help to provide extra training and spread awareness to the authorities involved in sexual offence cases about the best ways to approach such sensitive topics, perhaps encouraging them to work alongside therapists and psychologists to make them more effective at dealing with such sensitive matters and help to create an environment wherein women feel safer and more confident in obtaining justice. Such changes in the way we approach sexual offences have been supported by bodies such as UN Women, who published a 16 Steps Policy Agenda based on ‘prevention, protection and provision’ which provides a strategic plan on rape and ending violence against women, such national plans of action that involve spreading awareness, ensuring access to services and engaging the media would have a huge impact in giving women all over the world a significantly improved access to justice. Provisions are already being made around the world, such as in South Africa, where there are specialised Sexual Offence Courts which deal exclusively with rape and sexual violence prosecutions and employ staff that are trained to protect the victim and other provisions such as ensuring the victim does not need to come into contact with the perpetrator, these courts have a conviction rate between 70-95% in comparison to an average conviction rate of around 10%. It could very likely be found that the idea of sexual offences against women not being taken seriously enough to give them access to justice is perhaps one of the reasons for the sheer number of sexual offences that occur, and perhaps by implementing some of these changes, cases of sexual offences would fall, too.


An Introduction to UCL Junior Lawyers Against Poverty

Centred around the common goal to eradicate poverty, Lawyers Against Poverty (LAP) is an established network of lawyers around the world who are dedicated to ameliorating the access to justice in developing countries through improved legal education. As a junior division of LAP, UCL JLAP aspires to channel and nurture advocacy amongst students whilst gathering passionate individuals who harbour the same ambition together.


We identify, facilitate, and fund strategic legal projects which support access to justice in developing communities. Our initiatives are mainly focused on the following areas:

  • Gender-based violence and women’s property rights
  • Access to justice and legal empowerment
  • Right to food, including land rights, and food security laws
  • Legal support for governments, NGOs, universities, and lawyers in communities
  • Climate change and other strategic litigation
  • Legal support for refugees and asylum seekers


Launched in 2016, JLAP inspires members to uphold social responsibility by contributing their prowess to the attainment of the goal and embracing the core values of the organisation. We champion collective intelligence and encourage members to be proactive and inquisitive in honing both personal and professional skills for holistic development. We empower members to spearhead substantial and meaningful change during the orientation of their future career to ensure the vulnerable can take shelter under the umbrella of legal protection.


Our collaboration with LAP oversees a wide array of learning opportunities that engage students in legal support projects, public interest litigation, twinning law students and law departments at universities, training law students and junior lawyers, and fundraising for the Justice Fund. Despite the pandemic, the successful execution of the panel event entitled ‘Poverty and Pandemic: The Deadly Combination’ was one of the most notable milestones achieved by our committee last year.


UCL JLAP celebrates the qualities that ignite every social change: enthusiasm, vision, independence, and self-actualisation. Involve yourself and unleash your potential with our powerhouse committee members!


“I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with such an amazing and diverse team with every single member adapting so well to the difficult circumstances we worked in.”

Sahana Karthik
JLAP President 2020/21


“After conducting an interview with His Honour Nic Madge, I gained adaptability and skills in networking.”

Majd Mansour
Engagement Officer and First Year Representative 2020/21


You can find out more about UCL JLAP here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/access-to-justice/junior-lawyers-against-poverty-ucl

Laws Connections Homelessness Blog (2): A Citizen, Nothing More, Nothing Less? Reflections on the Right to Rights of the Homeless

As part of the Laws Connections Homelessness Case Study, first year students were asked to write a blog post reflecting on their experiences. We selected some of the most impressive entries to share with you here.

Author: Nikhita Mani

A wander through the ‘chartered’ streets of London no doubt acquaints one regularly with familiar requests of the homeless, the have-nots of this city of contrasts. On this one uncharacteristically warm September afternoon, I stepped out from Euston Square station, passing as I had done many a time before, the homeless old man, a fellow citizen,  nestled inconspicuously in the affluence of Bloomsbury. As I hurried with nervous anticipation through the secure doors of Bentham House to my first ‘Laws Connections’ session, I reflected on the sobering juxtaposition between the man and the opulence that surrounded him. A juxtaposition that underscored the contrasts, as I navigated the grand but guarded halls of Bentham House, not just between the wealth and impecunity but also between those with access to information and justice and those without.

Law, as an integral part of society, can be and is instrumental in affecting social change. As part of the ‘Laws Connections’ program, an educational innovation that engages young law students taking their first tentative steps into the legal world, we were encouraged to perceive the latitude of the law as beyond just procedural through the examination of a case study of our choice.  Having grown up in Newham, East London, which has the worst record of homelessness in England, I was innately aware of the plight and pervasiveness of the problem and passionate about exploring it. Choosing homelessness as a case study afforded me the opportunity to explore the issue through the legal lens of human rights and social justice. With 100,000 homeless households in England[1],  a figure likely to be exacerbated as we come out of the pandemic, this is an issue through which law has the potential to create tangible and meaningful change. Compelling testimonies and statistics impressed upon me, not only the disparities in homelessness, but also the structural determinants and upstream factors that lead to homelessness and prompted me to question: is homelesness a consequence or merely a condition? And, if it is a consequence, is current legislation reductive, in that it does not attempt to address the root causes?  

Indeed, there is substantial evidence that homelessness is a consequence. A consequence of structural violence. Structural violence, a term coined by sociologist Johan Galtung[2], describes a form of violence in which institutions and structures prevent individuals from meeting their basic needs. This theory has long been substantiated by evidence that austerity policies have been, at least in part, a direct cause of rising homelessness. Cuts in housing benefits contributed significantly to one-third of all occurrences of homelessness in 2014, while making it more difficult for individuals who had become homeless to be rehoused.[3] A Crisis poll revealed that 67% of local councils throughout England claimed that such reductions in benefits had exacerbated homelessness in their region as a result of the 2010 to 2015 welfare reforms.[4] Furthermore, in 2013 to 2014, welfare measures such as the “Bedroom Tax” resulted in an 18% increase in repossessions by social landlords.[5] Not only have the welfare reforms been a contributory factor to poverty that leads to homelessness, cuts in legal aid under the Legal Aid Sentencing Punishment of Offenders Act 2012[6] have removed the safety net that would have protected these vulnerable individuals and allowed them to seek justice for violations of their rights. The 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, presented a poignant portrayal of the human cost of these austerity measures. Watching the eponymous character navigate the tortuous and serpentine social welfare system impressed upon me the futility of legal safeguards that are inaccessible to those who need it most, and when they need it most.

Unlike poverty, primary legislation and statutory instruments have attempted to address homelessness through the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002. However, although they provide a welcome legal safeguard, they fail to address the fundamental and structural causes of homelessness. The concept of ‘Priority Need’, a framework that stratifies applicants according to vulnerability e.g. pregnancy but in effect renders a large proportion of the homeless ineligible to housing, seems reductive. The subjective and relative vulnerability assessments have led to many a litigation, some of which (Hotak & Others  v London Borough of Southwark) have led to some reform in how we define ‘vulnerability’. However, it seems that overall, instead of using resources to provide housing, resources are being diverted to prove eligibility, or lack thereof. It was surprising exploring the case, R(on the application of Ncube) v Brighton and Hove City Council (2021) EWHC 578 (Admin)[7], where the council went to great lengths to try to prove that the pandemic, that was declared by the World Health Organisation as “public health emergency”,[8] was not an emergency in Brighton, therefore deeming the claimant ineligible with regards to priority need. In my view, the current legislative approach is resource driven rather than rights driven. A paradigm shift towards considering housing a basic human right may provide for a more accessible and equitable system and prevent the stigmatisation and victimisation of the homeless.

The stigmatisation and victimisation is not just at a social level but is propagated by the institutions themselves. This is evident in the continued employment of the anachronistic Vagrancy Act (1824)[9] and the deployment of Public Space Protection Order[10] to disperse the rough sleeping homeless. Thereby, characterising these individuals as vagrants and a source of public disorder and criminalising the vulnerable and victimising the victim. This is reminiscent of what was portrayed in I, Daniel Blake, where sanctions were weaponised as a punitive measure against those in a vulnerable state. It seems that people faced with social morbidities, although victims of circumstance, are not afforded the same rights and respect as other citizens and often are not even seen as citizens, but a problem to other citizens. This sentiment was echoed in the final words of the film, through Dan’s poignant posthumous demand for rights and respect and, above all, his claim that he is a citizen, “nothing more and nothing less”.[11]

Social change, however, is impossible without political will. This was abundantly evident when, under the pressures of the pandemic, the government was able to provide housing to the homeless through the ‘Everyone In’ initiative where 15,000 rough sleepers were housed in emergency accommodation in England.[12] Unfortunately, this initiative has been quietly withdrawn. Which begs the question: why is there a lack of political will to create a more permanent solution to this pervasive problem?  The answer may lie in an aspect of this “decitizenisation”, the disenfranchisement of the homeless. Without a voice, their rights are eroded and ignored by successive governments. The rule of law is the bedrock of democracy and access to justice is the soil that can nourish the shoots of social reform. It is our duty, not just as lawyers, but, foremost, as fellow citizens, to, not only advocate for the rights of those most vulnerable in society, but to also espouse for, in the words of Jeremy Bentham, “Justice, justice, accessible justice…not for the few alone, but for all”.[13]


[1] Shelter, ‘Almost 100,000 Households Recorded As Homeless At The Start Of 2021’ (2021).

[2] Johan Galtung, ‘Violence, Peace, And Peace Research’ (1969) 6 Journal of Peace Research.

[3] Patrick Butler, ‘Welfare Reforms Are Main Cause Of Homelessness In England, Study Finds’ <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/04/homelessness-study-welfare-reforms-crisis> accessed 13 October 2021.

[4] Suzanne Fitzpatrick and others, ‘The Homelessness Monitor: England’ (Crisis 2015).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Legal Aid Sentencing Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

[7] [2021] EWHC 578 admin

[8] World Health Organisation, ‘COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Of International Concern (PHEIC) Global Research And Innovation Forum’ (2020).

[9] Vagrancy Act 1824

[10] Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 cl Public Space Protection Order

[11] Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake (Sixteen Films, eOne Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, BBC Films 2016).

[12] GOV.UK, ‘Next Steps Accommodation Programme’ (2020).

[13] Chris Riley, ‘The Hermit And The Boa Constrictor: Jeremy Bentham, Henry Brougham, And The Accessibility Of Justice’ (2019) 60 American Journal of Legal History.


Laws Connections Blog – Homelessness (1)

As part of the Laws Connections Homelessness Case Study, first year students were asked to write a blog post reflecting on their experiences. We selected some of the most impressive entries to share with you here.

Author: Danny Hall

Having grown up in a small town in rural England, I was rarely exposed to the issue of homelessness for the first 12 years of my life. Even in my prosperous hometown though, throughout my teens I noticed an increasing number of people sleeping on the streets. The prevailing perception of these people, unfortunately, was that they had no homes as a result of their own foolish decisions. These people were described, in my home and school environments, as uneducated addicts who had drunk, gambled, or drugged themselves out of their homes. I wanted to take part in the homelessness case study to challenge these perceptions, and to understand why, in the world’s sixth largest economy, a noticeable number of people were being forced to live in the absence of a need as basic as shelter. Accordingly, I would like to reflect on what I have learnt about the relationship between homelessness and law.

From the beginning of the study, I was shocked to hear the true scale of the housing crisis in this country, and particularly the vast number of so-called ‘hidden homeless’ people. Having solely associated homelessness with rough sleeping, thinking about those in temporary accommodation or sofa surfing gave me a new sense of perspective on the issue. Crisis estimates that 219,000 people were homeless at the end of 2019[1], and seeing such a stark figure I wondered what legal provisions were in place to tackle homelessness, and why so many were slipping through the cracks. By examining the legislation and cases alongside material from charities, it quickly became clear to me that this was a layered problem. First, while I had assumed that the state of homelessness or being threatened with homelessness would be sufficient to request housing from the state, but the concept of priority need[2] showed that this was not the case. This seemed to me to create a distinction between the undeserving and the deserving homeless. Even for those in priority need, it is far from guaranteed that a local authority will properly perform its duty to them, as my experience talking to Rachel Knowles made evident. Another layer was exposed in a report by Shelter, showing the risks that poor-quality temporary accommodation poses to its occupants. It mentions ‘cramped living spaces, infestation, poor washing and cleaning facilities’[3] and so on. Thus, those granted accommodation still cannot feel safe in their living conditions. That the system seemed so stacked against the most vulnerable people in our society remains deeply concerning to me.

What best contextualized the issues, though, was watching the experiences of Daniel and Katie in I, Daniel Blake[4]. Going beyond homelessness itself, the film showed the reality of the benefits system that can force people out of their homes if it goes wrong. The application of rigid procedures to an issue as individual as welfare seemed inhumane, and the disconnect between Daniel’s real situation and his lack of eligibility for ESA added to the idea of slipping through the cracks. Further the difficulty he faced in contacting the Department for Work and Pensions showed how people can be cut off from the support they desperately need. The imposition of sanctions of Katie’s benefits for the simple mistake of being late to a meeting made it clear that this is a system that can apply petty, school detention-like punishment systems to matters of life and death. Watching the film was an opportunity to consider not just the issue of homelessness, but the wider societal issues that lead to it.

The two issues mentioned above are clearly relevant to law; they involve housing law and social welfare law respectively. In both, though, I gained a sense of the need for increased access to justice. I had become aware of the extensive lack of legal accessibility in the year before coming to university, but in the case of homelessness it can easily represent the difference between being housed by a local authority and being left on the streets. As housing cases, except the most serious examples, have been removed from the scope of legal aid[5], the importance of pro bono work in this area has been significantly amplified. Alongside the elements of the case study itself, the opportunity to speak to Connor Johnston has inspired me to seek out pro bono opportunities, which I hope I will be able to participate in both at UCL and in my later career.

The overall view, then, that I have gained from the case study is that the problem of homelessness is unique in every individual case, but in the wider sense is rooted in political issues. As such, I believe that any attempts to solve it must address both individual and political factors. On an individual level, it is vital that people become more aware of and find it easier to access the legal tools available to them. I have seen during the case study how judicial review cases, particularly Southwark[6] have addressed the unlawful actions of local authorities and forced them to house vulnerable individuals. Pro bono projects are one way to achieve this, but it would be preferable if all housing cases were recognised as being potentially life-defining events that should be eligible for legal aid. On a broader, political level, the spirit of the ‘Everyone In’ campaign might be brought into normal practice; there is no reason that housing the vulnerable inhabitants of this nation should be dependent on international crisis. Local authorities might be made more accountable either to the central government or to independent bodies, so that they are more pressured to properly consider each applicant. The root causes of homelessness might be addressed by the building of more social housing and reformation of the application and communication systems for benefits.

I feel that taking part in the homelessness case study has shown me the value of studying law in context, with an appreciation of social and political issues.


[1] Crisis UK, ‘Ending Homelessness – About Homelessness’ <https://www.crisis.org.uk/ending-homelessness/about-homelessness/> Accessed 14 October 2021

[2] Housing Act 1996 s 189; Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002/2051

[3] Shelter – Denied the Right to a Safe Home Report <https://assets.ctfassets.net/6sxvmndnpn0s/415ro3YWRxffE7sXqWI1bO/9fc9f11543e50fc4a49f2e13cfda611d/Shelter_Denied_the_right_to_a_safe_home_Report.pdf> Accessed 14 October 2021

[4] I, Daniel Blake (2016) Dir. Ken Loach

[5] Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

[6] R (G) v Southwark [2009] UKHL 26

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