THE Scottish justice system is not what it was, but it is not yet what it should be. There have been improvements to the way the system handles cases of rape and sexual crime, notably the 2009 Sexual Offences Act and the creation of the National Sexual Crimes Unit. But the conviction rate for rape and attempted rape is at its lowest for 10 years, and the experience of some victims is troubling. If the aim is a system that always works quickly, sensitively and fairly – and it should be – then Scottish justice is still falling short.

In an attempt to tackle some of these problems, the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) has now embarked on a welcome new Scottish Government-funded research project which will seek the views of rape and sexual assault victims on how the justice system works. It will then use these views to consider how the investigation and prosecution process might be improved. Speaking about the project, the Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said he was determined to do more to ensure that all stages of the justice process were centred on the victim and informed by the trauma they have endured.

The need for such an approach has never been clearer. Last year, a report by the Inspectorate of Prosecutions on the experiences of victims made for bleak reading. Many are left in the dark, it said, with court appearances postponed at the last minute, or venues changed; there was also sometimes a lack of clear and timely information about the progress of cases. Some said it was so bad that they wished they had never been through it, even if their attacker was convicted, and one even described the process of seeking justice as being worse than being raped. Strong sentiments like that are a measure of how much still has to change.

Communication with victims is one area that is in particular need of attention. It cannot be right for instance that, in one case, it took the Crown 15 months to contact the complainer after the police submitted their report.

However, more support, and more resources (including more specialist officers) are also urgently needed for victims to feel less traumatised by the process of justice. After all, a prosecution usually depends on whether a victim is willing to give evidence ¬ therefore a system that leaves them feeling humiliated or let-down is likely to lead to fewer convictions.

Hopefully, the new research from SCCJR will be an opportunity to address these problems. But whatever the results, the aim should be a process of justice that works quickly and openly, for the accuser and the accused. Victims can tell us what going through the system feels like; the next step will be to use their views to shape a better and fairer criminal justice system.