Impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on criminal justice journeys of adult and child survivors of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual assault

Research Institution / Organisation

Coventry University

In Collaboration With

Co-investigators - Dr Siobhan Weare (Lancaster University), Professor Vanessa Munro (University of Warwick), Dr Emma Sleath (University of Leicester), Michelle Cutland (University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust).

Principal Researcher

Dr Lorna O'Doherty

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

November 2020

Research Context

Over 150,000 sexual offences were recorded by police in year ending March 2020 (ONS, 2020), and there are indications that lockdown increased some sexual offences (e.g. online-facilitated abuse, or sexual abuse perpetrated by family members) and decreased others (e.g. assaults by strangers/peers). However, there has been no research into the specific effects of Covid-19 on criminal justice system (CJS) policies and practices relating to sexual offences, nor on the journeys of survivors through the CJS during this period.

Prior to the pandemic, there were significant challenges for the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences and conviction rates were extremely low. Some of these challenges may well have been exacerbated by Covid-19 and lockdown e.g. further delays to investigating cases, postponement of Achieving Best Evidence interviews. At the same time, however, Covid-19 has generated significant innovation within the CJS, e.g. the introduction of a video platform within the courts enabling all parties in a criminal hearing to engage securely and remotely, and this may sow the seeds for improvement in survivors’ journeys through the CJS.

Drawing on the perspectives and experiences of CJS stakeholders, including complainants and families, police, Crown Prosecution Service, HM Courts and Tribunals Services, the Judiciary, Sexual Assault Referral Centres, and Independent Sexual Violence Advisors, this research will provide unique insights into the impact of the pandemic on the CJS in sexual offence cases. Changes to procedures precipitated by Covid-19 might offer longer-term benefits for survivors and stakeholders and we aim to identify these and promote their implementation.


  • Provide insights into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the CJS in sexual offences cases

  • Identify changes to policies and procedures precipitated by Covid-19 that might offer longer-term benefits for survivors and CJS stakeholders and promote their implementation, as well as wider recommendations around policy and practice reform.

To achieve these aims, the following key objectives are identified:

  • Conduct 120 in-depth interviews with survivors and CJS stakeholders across England and Wales

  • Communicate research findings and recommendations to CJS stakeholders, allied agencies, policymakers, survivors etc via a clear dissemination and outputs strategy

The funding for this research project has been provided by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UKRI Rapid Response to Covid-19.

Research Methodology

Research questions:

  1. What are survivors and CJS stakeholders’ perspectives and experiences of (changes to) policies and practices in relation to sexual offences cases during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how do they vary across settings and groups?

  2. What recommendations can be made in relation to policies and practices in the sphere of sexual offences and the CJS in England and Wales for the duration of the pandemic and beyond?

A qualitative investigation will involve 120 in-depth interviews to gain rich, triangulated, and diverse survivor and practitioner perspectives and experiences in relation to justice in sexual offences cases over the period of the Covid-19 pandemic. The research will be conducted across policing and criminal justice, voluntary/third sector and community settings in England and Wales, with 6 predefined stakeholder groups:

  • Survivors/service users and families (n=30)

  • Charity/third sector/ISVAs (n=20)

  • Police (n=20) SARC (n=10)

  • CPS (n=20)

  • Judiciary/HMCTS (n=20).

Data collection
Initial interviews with key stakeholders (identified through project partners) will identify overarching concerns locally, regionally, and nationally, and specifically in regards to Covid-19 and impacts across the CJS from professionals’ persectives and in relation to survivors’ experiences of justice. This will inform our interview schedules and targeted participants. Interview schedules will be refined collaboratively across the team and partners, and tailored to generate rich, detailed insights relevant to each stakeholder group and the pandemic context. Data will be collected using semi-structured interviews conducted remotely using telephone, audio/video link, or face-to-face should restrictions ease over the period.

Analysis and synthesis
A CGT analytical process provides the tools to discern and analyse differing perspectives revealed in the studied phenomenon, studying how and why participants construct meaning and actions. This approach sees data and analysis as created from shared experiences and relationships with participants and other sources of data. The analysis process will begin once initial interviews have been completed. This supports the intensive interviewing process, as data will be coded on an ongoing basis to uncover analytic ideas, pursued in later interviews. Line-by-line coding (active, immediate, and short) will be undertaken, focusing initially on reflecting actions within the data as recommended by CGT (Charmaz, 2014), but also using recommended coding strategies e.g. seeking unspoken assumptions about certain aspects of the CJS. Memo-writing will document this process to capture initial comparisons, connections, and directions to pursue. CGT is a comparative method, which means that throughout the analysis process we will draw out similarities and differences in multiple ways across the data (e.g. early and later interviews, across different stakeholder groups), and ensure checking through team meetings and stakeholder workshops. This will identify connections, contradictions, and challenge taken-for-granted understandings, which will enable us to develop agendas and synthesise our recommendations.

Interim reports and publications

​Not yet available. Workshops sharing interim research findings will be held approximately bi-monthly from May 2021 to February 2022. Research briefings will also be produced in September 2021, January 2022, March 2022 and May 2022 (approx). The final research report will be available in May 2022 (approx).

Date due for completion

May 2022
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