Sexual assault play being used to train NI judges

An award winning play about sexual assault and the legal system is being used to help train judges in Northern Ireland.

Jodie Comer starred in Prima Facie in both the West End and on Broadway.

A recorded version of the show is being made available to judges who deal with sexual assault cases in Northern Ireland's courts.

Ms Comer played the character of Tessa in the one-woman show about a barrister who defends people accused of sexual assault, before she herself is raped by a colleague.

Playwright Suzie Miller told BBC News NI she believed theatre could change society.

"When you take a character and show, rather than tell, someone what's not working - it's really easy to see it when it's in a story context, and with a character that you really care about," she said.

Ms Miller said she thought it "engages and ignites people to where the unfairness lies."

She said she had received phone calls from "so many" judges who came to see the play.

"This is a conversation that everyone has to have and we have to have it now," she said.

"We need to talk about what we can do within our court system to actually protect someone who's a complainant and encourage people to complain,

"Encourage them to have faith there will be some outcome that is, at the very least, not re-traumatising for them, but at the better end of the scale is that they are believed.

"The more aware that our judges are in court, the more they can come to terms with something that they see as a rape myth and call it out."

Rosie Cowan looking into the camera lens
Rosie Cowan has done research in to the impact of rape myths in criminal cases. [BBC]

Rosie Cowan, a lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, has carried out research into the impact of rape myths in criminal cases.

She told BBC News NI the use of the play in training judges could be a powerful tool.

"I think it'll be a very compelling reminder of the power of rape myths in society.

"Rape myths are false beliefs and stereotypes about rape, like what a victim wears or how much she drinks or indeed as happens in the play, her previous sexual history."

"There's a substantial body of research, my own included and which has found that rape myths bias many people against complainants."

'Set up to fail'

One memorable line from the play highlights the character's journey through her perception of the criminal justice system: "Once you see you cannot unsee".

"When I was at law school, I remember thinking it was really odd that a defence barrister could hold up a pair of underwear that most women in the school were wearing that day at university," said Ms Miller.

"And so … that means you were wanting sex."

"I thought, well I've got underwear on that's fairly decent, but that doesn't mean I'm here wanting to be raped," she said.

"And I remember thinking there's something very wrong in this area of law, but I couldn't quite articulate it because I was a human rights advocate and I believed in innocence until proven guilty.

"So I thought there's something missing. There's a fundamental key missing here that they're actually set up to fail in court."

Prima Facie also puts a spotlight on court delays and the resulting impact on victims.

Recent figures uncovered by BBC News NI show that it takes 757 days on average for a sex crime to be dealt with in Northern Ireland, considerably longer than most of other crimes.

In 2022, a judge was criticised for comments he made during a sentencing when he suggested a convicted sex offender should "find a wife".

This prompted Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan to announce that judges would receive more training.

In a statement she said: "The Judicial Studies Board regularly monitors developments and innovations to identify material and resources which might enhance the quality of training which judges receive.

"The subject matter of any given training may include new legislation or case law, newly available research or any other available material capable of improving the learning outcomes of the judicial participants".