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Draft Victims Bill won’t achieve Government’s aims, says Justice Committee

Today (30th September 2022) the Justice Committee publishes a report on its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Government’s draft Victims Bill. The report contains a number of recommendations to strengthen and improve the Bill, stating that significant changes are needed in order for it to live up to its ambitions.

We welcome this report, which echoes our concerns that the Bill does not go far enough in protecting Victims’ rights. If the Government implements these recommendations, the Victims’ Bill has the potential to significantly improve the experiences of rape victims and survivors going through the criminal justice system.

We are however disappointed that, despite a series of strong recommendations from specialist organisations, the Committee did not recommend to Government the need to afford victims and survivors of rape privacy rights. We believe this pertinent omission around the confidentiality of counselling notes is a missed opportunity to truly improve victims’ well-being and dignity.

Key recommendations:

  • One of the most important recommendations urges the Government to introduce a complete firewall between the police and immigration enforcement, ending the sharing of data which left those with insecure immigration status unable to seek justice, and at risk of further victimisation. Specialist Black and minoritised and migrant women’s organisations, backed by the wider violence against women and girls’ sector, have been making the demand for a firewall for decades. The need for this protection to be enshrined in law is urgent, and it is key that parliament accept this.
  • Importantly, the Committee stated that there is a case for providing independent legal advice for vulnerable victims facing disclosure requests and that this should be further considered by Government. Rape Crisis England & Wales has been advocating for the introduction of independent legal advice following the Northumbria pilot.
  • In acknowledgement of the vital role specialist support services have for victims, the Committee has recommended that the Government put in place a national multi-year ring-fenced fund to support them. In the past year demand for Rape Crisis services has increased by 38%, clearly demonstrating the pressures on specialist services which are already running at capacity. There was a separate reference to further funding being made available for the ISVA role, which acknowledges that services face unmanageable referral levels.
  • We are hugely encouraged to see the Committee make the important recommendation that both the updated Victims’ Code and the Victims’ Bill make specific reference to the inclusion of rights under the Code for children born of rape. “Daisy” and colleagues at Centre for Women’s Justice have been making the case that children born of rape should be recognised as secondary victims.

These recommendations form a solid basis for an improved Victims’ Bill, and we urge the Government to listen and implement them. However, despite a series of strong and potentially transformative recommendations, it is a serious shortcoming that the Committee did not recommend to Government the need to afford victims and survivors of rape privacy rights.

The stated intent of the Bill is that “victims of crime… feel able to engage and remain engaged in the criminal justice system”. Yet there is no recommendation in place to ensure that survivors have full access to therapy without the risk of private material being disclosed. We know from our work with victims and survivors that this is a barrier to them seeking justice.

Amelia Handy, Policy Lead at Rape Crisis England and Wales states:

“The set of recommendations by the Justice Committee could transform the lives of victims and survivors if earnestly adopted by Government. We are delighted to see strong recommendations recognising children of rape as victims, the introduction of a firewall for migrant survivors, multi-year funding for specialist services, and independent legal representation included in the committee’s report. All of these have been campaigned for by women’s organisations supporting victims and survivors of male violence.

However, the Committee omitted a recommendation to safeguard a survivor’s right to private counselling. Omitting it from the Victims’ Bill leaves rape and sexual abuse survivors vulnerable to the continued and routine requests for highly sensitive and irrelevant material. Although the Committee states that the purpose of counselling is therapeutic and not investigative, the committee falls short of introducing a common-sense option to ensure that police time is not wasted and that irrelevant and deeply private information is not needlessly trawled.

This is a significant shortcoming when you consider that approximately half of rape survivors drop out of the criminal justice process because it is simply too hard to continue. How are survivors expected to engage and remain engaged with a system that does not respect their right to private counselling and therapy, and even uses it against them?”