Survivors actively discouraged from seeking critical counselling

Women who choose to report sexual assault are being told they can’t get life-altering, life-changing specialist therapy

An article published by Vice last week exposed outdated guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service that prevents many victims and survivors from receiving critical counselling.

The guidelines, developed primarily for therapists or those commissioning and arranging therapy, state that complainants in sexual assault cases should not discuss the details of the attack with therapists. If they do, they should be prepared that the records – including notes, tapes or video – may be admitted in evidence in court.

The guidelines go on to state that accessing therapy before trail may impact the credibility of the witness’s evidence:

“Pre-trial discussions may lead to the allegations of coaching, and ultimately, the failure of the criminal case.”

The guidelines, last updated in 2002, result in many victims being actively discouraged from accessing the support they desperately need following rape or assault, which may prove hugely detrimental to their mental health and ability to recover from the trauma.

Speaking on behalf of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAWC), Rebecca Hitchen explains this may be due to the fear that women who appear too composed or calm on the stand will be seen as lacking credibility or even as liars: reinforcing dangerously inaccurate stereotypes about rape and sexual assault victims.

“We would be worried that the police and prosecutors are concerned that a woman discussing a traumatic incident within therapy could lead to concerns that she may sound rehearsed,” says Rebecca.

“That plays into really damaging myths around how people present after going through trauma – for example, if a woman who is being cross-examined or asked to describe what took place sounds calm, then it may lead the jury to suspect that she’s not telling the truth.”

The impact of trauma, including rape or sexual violence, is still widely misunderstood by the criminal justice system. Victims and survivors should be considered as individuals who will process and respond to the experience in very different ways.

Responses can range from the more commonly cited such as anxiety, depression, fear or distress, through to detachment, dissociation, numbness or the use of self-preservative behaviours, including an inability to recall the incident or even use of humour when trying to articulate the experience. Simply put, there is no ‘right way’ to respond to abuse.

As the UK faces its lowest rape prosecution rate in five years, alongside a reputation for one of the lowest conviction rates for rape in the world, there is further concern that the enforced silence and inability to access the right support may be contributing to victims dropping out of the criminal justice process.

The typical length of time for a case to make its way through the system also means these women may be forced to go years without the help they need.

“Reporting a sexual offence to police, and that case actually reaching court, can take two years,” explains Katie Russell of Rape Crisis England and Wales.

“That’s not uncommon at all. And that’s obviously an extraordinarily long period of time for any victim or survivor to unavoidably have to relive and continue going over the details of what’s happened to them, of what might likely be the most traumatic thing that’s happened in their lives. It’s an especially long time if they feel, or they are advised, that they shouldn’t receive specialist support.”

Failure to receive trauma-informed counselling and support can have long-term and devastating effects: a breakdown in relationships, inability to work, increased likelihood of alcohol or drug abuse, and even suicide. Forcing women into silence is as dangerous as it is cruel.

“While our helpline service is strictly confidential, we are acutely aware of the fact that any records can be requested as evidence should victims make the decision to take their case to court,” says Fiaza, TRC Centre Manager.

“To protect women, we don’t take personal details from helpline service users and use an anonymous numerical system for basic reporting and recording purposes. However, as we rollout our counselling service, we are legally obligated to keep records which can – according to this guidance – be requested.

“It’s hugely worrying that such out-of-date and damaging practices continue to exist. It’s further evidence that an in-depth review of how the justice system treats victims of sexual violence is desperately needed. We join the EVAWC in petitioning that the use of counselling notes in court for rape survivors must end, now.”

Please sign the petition, found here, to join the call to end this outdated practice.

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