Prima Facie

***Trigger warning- this post discusses sexual violence and trauma ***

Last night I finally saw National Theatre Live ‘Prima Facie’ starring the amazing Jodie Comer.

Image is Copyright to Empire Street Productions and National Theatre Live. It advertises to play Prima Facie and has two images of actress Jodie Comer who plays barrister Tessa.

Written by Suzie Miller, directed by Justin Martin and presented by Empire Street productions, the play is a monologue of criminal barrrister Tessa (played by Comer). The play is described in the following way: “An unexpected event forces her to confront the lines where the patriarchal power of the law, burden of proof and morals diverge”.

The play comes with explicit trigger warnings and I would not recommend to those currently suffering with the aftermath of rape, sexual assault or CSA/CSE. That being said, this performance is one of the most powerful portrayals of the harms of both rape and how the legal system can fail victims that I have ever come across.

The play supports the Schools Consent Project, a charity dedicated to educating young people about consent and sexual assault.

The homepage of Prima Facie gives the harrowing statistics of recorded sexual offences and the low level of prosecutions.

This subject of the play and the surrounding discussions underpin much of my teaching, writing and thinking. The social harms of sexual offending go far beyond the remit of criminal law. Indeed, if every sex offender was prosecuted and convicted, we would not have enough prison places, police officers, CPS resources or barristers and solicitors in the world. This is the level of sex offending we are talking about, where 1 in 3 women are the victims of sexual assault or rape (and of course, children, men, trans and ND peoples are victims of CSA/CSE, sexual assault and rape).

So of course I agree that the criminal justice system alone cannot remedy the epidemic nature of sexual violence. However, as I have discussed before here in my March 2021 blog post, nor do I think we should abondon using the CJS to tackle sexual crimes.

Being called a ‘carceral feminist’ does not concern me as my paper here, which won the British Society of Crimology paper prize 2022 attests.

Nor do I believe that a one-size-fits-all response is appropriate for victim-survivors of sexual violence. I draw you attention back to this invaluable article by Anna Terweil ‘What Is Carceral Feminism’?

I repeat from my earlier March 2021 post the following, drawing from the work of Terweil: “If scholars and campaigners want to genuinely problematize what ‘justice’ is, and what alternatives to the carceral state there are, they better be ready for the uncomfortable answers that don’t sit with a romanticized idea of a ‘community’. A community that apparently does not replicate racism, misogyny, classism, ableism or any violence. The rape apologism and misogyny of many on the left, including prominent workers’ movements cannot be ignored. The idea of a consensus is particularly troubling and simplistic. I add (15.03.21) this article by Dr Julia Downes of the problem with sexual violence in left-wing movements“.

Recent high-profile domestic violence cases have illustrated the vitriol with which victim-survivors are treated by supporters of the offender. Prima Facie reinforces this, with the harrowing ordeal of Tessa in crown court, feeling all alone as the defendant is flanked by school buddies, family and colleagues who punch the air as he walks free from court.

If we want to imagine alternative forms of justice we have to do better than vague descriptions of ‘community’ and explicitly address tensions between people and groups. Without accountability there is no justice. In the play the accused not only interferes with the victim in the lobby of a court building (both the defendant and the complainant are barristers) but also destroys the complainant’s reputation, confidence and ability to access space. Another reason why I will never be a prison abolitionist is that a victim’s world becomes smaller. This is a spatial regulation and access issue.

I quote Terweil again here: “A binary understanding of carceral feminism that pits feminists who are willing to engage with the state or the law against feminists who see transformative justice as the only route to justice obscures that feminists within each camp (and not just the people they wish to hold accountable) may disagree about what sexual (in)justice looks like. This is especially salient when transformative justice practitioners recommend that everyone be “on the same page with their political analysis of sexual violence” Terweil, 2020, p. 429).

I have long used the concept of ‘kaleidoscopic justice’ by Professor Nicole Westmarland and Professor Clare McGlynn (2018) who identified that recognition is a key component to victim-survivors’ understanding of justice and includes acknowledgement of the significance of the harm, they coin the term ‘kaleidoscopic justice’ which captures: “a constantly shifting pattern; justice constantly refracted through new experiences or understandings; justice as an ever-evolving, nuanced and lived experience” (p. 1).

Just as McGynn and Westmarland argue for an understanding of that is a ‘kaleidoscope of justice’ that varies from each victim-survivor, Antonsdottir argues that we must see victim-survivors experiences as being on a continuum of justice (Antondottir, 2019).

In 2022 article ‘Challenging anti-carceral feminism: criminalisation, justice and continuum thinking’ by Professor Clare McGlynn, the argument is that we need to move beyond binary thinking and engage with ‘continuum thinking’.

Professor McGlynn states: “Drawing on research with sexual violence survivors into their perceptions of justice, in section three I argue that as some women seek redress through conventional criminal justice systems, we need to continue engaging with those processes if we are to fully recognise the experiences and perspectives of all survivors. In this light, in section four I examine the activism of a number of predominantly UK-based anti-violence feminist organisations, including those working with black and minoritised women experiencing abuse, who are navigating the challenging terrain of supporting survivors through the criminal justice system, as well as advocating for radical change. Their work, I argue, challenges the binaries of carceral/anti-carceral feminism and activism and embodies the spirit of ‘continuum thinking’” (Please see Boyle, 2019).

In Prima Facie, Tessa wants redress through the criminal justice system. As a barrister who has defending many accused of sexual offending, Tessa wants to believe in the system that she is complicit in. A notable part of the play is the numbers counting up the days from experiencing rape to attending crown court: 782 days.

The current strike action of criminal barristers adds further explanation to delays experienced by both complainant and defendant. This blog post by barrister Joanna Hardy-Susskind details the reasons for the huge backlogs to justice.

The character of Tessa also shows the raw nature of trauma, dissociation and ongoing harm caused by sexual violence. How the victim always suffers more than the offender.

If it is available and appropriate for you, given the trigger warning above and explicitly stated in the screening, then I highly recommend this play to aid understanding and further discussions of the needs of victim-survivors and the secondary trauma of the CJS.

As always I stand in solidarity with victim-survivors of all sexual violence.

Gemma x