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Are Politicians listening to victim survivors of sexual assault?

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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Are Politicians listening to victim survivors of sexual assault?

As a lawyer who specialises in helping victims of sexual assault it seems to me, over many years, that victim survivors are not dealt with fairly, are treated as inferior to the sexual offenders, and not given sufficient support. One such example is the limited mental health support for victim survivors of sexual assault. Although there has been a substantial increase in government funding for mental health services it is still the case that there is likely to be a limit on the number of counselling sessions that an individual is entitled to. This must change if the government is to truly prove that they are on the side of the victim, ensuring justice is done.

Longer Prison Sentences for Sexual Offenders

In the meantime, it’s pleasing to report that they have been two notable changes, made for the benefit of victims of a sexual and violent crime. In a matter of weeks, the government has announced that sexual and violent offenders will serve at least two thirds of their prison sentence rather than the current position, half, at which point, subject to behaviour, the offender will be released on bail. Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, says that this change will ensure that the most serious violent and sexual offenders “get the prison time they deserve”. The government has made clear that offenders sentenced to between four and seven years in prison for serious crimes, such as rape and manslaughter, will no longer be automatically considered for release halfway through their prison sentence.

Robert Buckland has said that “the public want to know that custodial sentences for these sorts of crimes 'do what they say on the tin'. They want to know that when serious and violent offenders go to prison, that’s where they’ll stay for as long as possible”. This statement is likely to resonate with victim survivors of sexual assault as they are often frustrated at the length of prison sentences handed down to sexual offenders and that they may be eligible for release halfway through their sentence. This change, requiring offenders to spend at least two thirds of their sentence in prison, will be a welcome change.

Victim Survivors to give evidence early

A second and further welcome change to the criminal justice system, for children and other vulnerable victims of crime, is that their evidence can now be pre-recorded, to avoid them having to attend court. Following a pilot exercise, all crown courts in London and Kent will adopt the new procedures, before being rolled out across the country next year.

Although the victim survivor of the sexual assault will still be subjected to cross-examination by the offenders’ lawyers, this will not be in the full glare of the jury, but undertaken substantially in advance of a trial, which has two benefits.

First, as indicated, they will not give their evidence in the full glare of a court with everyone present. Secondly, and importantly, their evidence will be given much earlier and therefore it is likely to be clearer, fresher and, hopefully more accurate in terms of their account of what took place. As the Victim’s Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird said, “If they (vulnerable witnesses) can give their evidence at an early stage, they will then be free to get on with their lives. There is also a further point that therapy is often delayed whilst a complainant is a witness”.

What further help is available for victims survivors of sexual assault?

Of these two changes to the criminal justice system the latter will be particularly beneficial as it focuses on the mental well-being of the most important person at the centre of any sexual assault case, whether criminal, or a claim for sexual assault compensation, the welfare of the survivor.

These are both welcome steps to recognise the rights and wishes of victim survivors, but I hope it is not the last announcement.

Furthermore, those affected by the sexual assault must have their personal cases answered; giving evidence early and keeping offenders in prison is not sufficient. They must receive personal justice and in appropriate cases receive compensation to reflect the hurt and harm they have suffered. No amount of money can make up for the distress they have suffered but it can help to heal the wounds and to enable them to gain access to good mental health support.

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