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NCPS survey shows the impact of routine police requests for survivors' counselling notes

A recent survey from The National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society (NCPS) shows the alarming extent and impact of police requests for rape survivors’ counselling notes.

The NCPS is a professional body for counsellors and psychotherapists in the UK, representing over 16,000 therapists. In December 2023, the NCPS surveyed their members to look at the impact of routine requests for counselling notes and the Government's proposed plans that would make it explicit in law for the police to not need a client’s consent to access therapy notes.

The findings reveal significant concerns among therapists about routine police requests for counselling notes, especially in cases involving sexual violence and abuse.

Key findings from the survey include:

  • Nearly 1 in 4 (23%) therapists have had counselling notes requested by the police.
  • 86% of therapists who have had notes requested said that the case related to sexual violence ‘most of the time’ or ‘all of the time’.
  • Only 26% of therapists would feel confident in making decisions about disclosing counselling notes when requested by the police.
  • 92% of therapists disagreed with government plans to remove the need for client consent to share counselling notes with police.
  • 90% of therapists support calls for requests for rape survivors’ counselling notes to be considered by a judge, with a higher legal threshold for disclosure given their uniquely sensitive nature.
  • Almost all therapists (96%) back calls for free legal advice for clients whose notes are requested.
  • 90% of therapists who responded support our Keep Counselling Confidential campaign.

The NCPS found that the fear of counselling notes being shared leads clients to self-censor, impacting the efficacy of therapy. A number of therapists also reported clients choosing not to access therapy at all in cases where their notes may be requested.

Ciara Bergman, CEO of Rape Crisis England & Wales, said:

“The latest figures from the CPS reveal another concerning increase in the number of victim-survivors withdrawing from the criminal justice system, having come forward to report rape. Indeed, these figures are the highest they have been since 2018/19.

Policies and practices which leave victim-survivors feeling blamed, discredited and/or retraumatised are significant factors when it comes to confidence in policing and criminal justice processes. Requesting the disclosure of victim-survivors’ counselling notes as part of a criminal investigation is an example of this.

Talking therapies are hugely important for victim-survivors of rape and sexual abuse; they provide safe, non-judgemental and supportive spaces in which disclosures can be made, trauma can be understood, and the process of recovery and rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of sexual violence can begin. Victim-survivors should not be placed in the position of having to choose between support and justice. But requesting the disclosure of counselling notes as part of criminal investigations leaves many feeling that they must.”

The survey also highlighted significant concerns about government plans to remove the need for clients to consent to the sharing of their counselling notes. This change is being brought in via the Victims and Prisoners Bill, currently being debated in Parliament.

A significant number of therapists raised concerns about the ethical implications of routine requests for notes, and how this leads to an impact on professional standards. Others expressed distrust or scepticism about the police or the legal system's handling of such sensitive information. Therapists raised issues about survivors’ rights to privacy, and the risk of further harm or re-traumatisation of clients.

“Survivors tell me it feels as if the rapist is back for more, this time with the law on their side. They grant access because they may be told the case will be dropped if they don't. They say to prove they aren't lying they give access without knowing what else from their private lives, or the lives of their loved ones, will be released.” - NCPS member

When a victim of rape reports the offence to the police, they are often put in an impossible position. They are forced to choose between pursuing justice or processing trauma, due to the likelihood of their private counselling notes being shared with the police, prosecutors, defence and the courtroom.

Survivors who do continue with therapy ahead of a trial are often told they must not talk about what happened to them. Both scenarios leave many without vital, life-saving support at a time when it is needed most.

Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), said:

“Counselling should be a safe and private space to explore feelings and heal from trauma. It has little relation to the facts of a case. It is completely unacceptable that this crucial support is often inaccessible to survivors when they need it. The government now has a real opportunity to make the Victims and Prisoners Bill as effective as possible for victims by protecting rape survivors’ counselling notes and providing them with free, independent legal advice.”

Current policing practices mean survivors experience routine and excessive requests for their notes as part of investigations inappropriately focusing on the victim’s perceived credibility, rather than the actions of the suspect. Because of this focus on credibility, material within counselling notes is used to close cases inappropriately, despite these notes not containing facts relevant to the case. If a prosecution is brought, the survivor’s counselling notes can be scrutinised by the defence.

“Counselling is an essential support to victims and survivors. Clients need to know their notes are kept in the highest confidence. Without this they may be even more reluctant to seek the support they need.” - NCPS member

Therapy records are very rarely relevant to a case. Counselling is about feelings, not facts.

“The only reason to request notes is usually to try and either discredit the therapist or discredit the witness. Therapy is not fact finding or investigative.” - NCPS member

A coalition of expert organisations, including Rape Crisis England & Wales, the Centre for Women’s Justice, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Rights of Women, are calling for a change in the law to ensure rape survivors’ notes are only requested in cases where there is a genuine need, with requests considered by a judge - a call supported by 9 in 10 therapists surveyed by the NCPS.

Meg Moss, Head of Policy & Public Affairs at the NCPS, said:

“Routine requests for notes have a huge impact on the therapeutic relationship; even to the point that a number of survivors don’t feel able to access the vital support they need in the first place. When they do feel able to access therapy, the potential that notes may be requested is like a spectre in the room for many, and has an impact on the therapy whether or not they are eventually requested. For the therapists that have joined this profession to help those who need it most, becoming part of a process that can potentially continue to traumatise and victimise their clients is a very tricky and uncomfortable position to be in, especially in the current system where many feel coerced to do so.

It’s so important that we take this opportunity to make life-changing amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill; to support survivors in accessing the therapeutic support that they need without reservation.”

The full NCPS briefing is available here.