Introduce free & independent legal support for victims of sexual violence

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People who report sexual offences to the police should have access to free and independent legal advice and advocacy to ensure that their privacy rights are protected.

I’m a criminology expert and researcher, and together with Ellen Daly, I've just done some research that found victim-survivors of sexual violence desperately need better support. Many victim-survivors say their experience of the criminal justice system had an impact on their mental health, and many say they would not report again. 

The current situation isn’t good enough, and that’s why we're calling for a national scheme of legal advocacy for sexual offence complainants that will:

1.    Provide free legal advice and representation for victim-survivors of serious sexual offences. This should include the guardians of child complainants and adults with intellectual disabilities (unless the guardian is a key defence witness).

2.    Offer advice on best practice for police and other criminal justice practitioners, including via training and a national professional advice helpline. 

Why is independent legal advice and advocacy needed?

Criminal justice responses to rape, sexual assault and other sexual offences are failing victim-survivors, and have been for a long time. The system has lost the confidence of victim-survivors, is causing significant harm to those who decide to engage with it, and prosecution and conviction rates for rape are at an all-time low. Something needs to change. Maintaining the status quo is not acceptable.

Whilst reporting to the police is not the right option for everyone (and nor should it be expected), those who do want to make a report should be able to feel confident that the system is fair and won’t needlessly cause them additional harm. But our recent national survey clearly shows that this is not the case:

  • Only 12% of victim-survivors felt that police investigations are fair and proportionate;
  • Only 1 in 5 (21%) feel the criminal justice system treats victims with dignity;
  • Only 1 in 5 (21%) were satisfied with their criminal justice experience;
  • Victim-survivors felt they were blamed by investigators for what happened to them;
  • Engaging with the criminal justice system left victim-survivors with significant, long-term detrimental effects on their mental health and wellbeing – on top of the trauma of sexual violence;
  • Many victim-survivors regretted reporting to the police and said they would not do so again;
  • Many others did not report at all because they have heard about others’ bad experiences.

Research shows that victim-survivors’ privacy rights are routinely side-lined or ignored without proper consideration of what is fair, relevant, or proportionate in an investigation. Free and independent legal advice and advocacy will help protect against this.

Some of the victim-survivors in our research have been further harmed by their experience of the legal system. One said: that “This has ruined my life, and my experience of the criminal justice system only made it worse. I feel angry and isolated, years later.” You can see more about what victim-survivors said in the videos on our webpage page, needisclear.org.

An evaluation of a recent pilot scheme in North East England, as well as research from other countries with a similar legal system, has shown that independent legal advice and advocacy for complainants in sexual offences cases improves their experience of and confidence in the criminal justice system. As well as this, independent legal advice and advocacy also improves police and CPS practice, meaning that complainants’ rights are better protected.

The Home Office estimates that the annual cost of sexual offences to England and Wales is £12.2 billion. Providing free and independent legal advocacy to complainants would cost a fraction of this – an estimated 3.9 million – and would lead to savings elsewhere (e.g. health and employment spending).

Sign now to urge the government to formally recognize the need for free and independent legal advice and advocacy for complainants in sexual offences cases.

The video was directed by Sheila Nortley.