The Bill, published in May this year, aims to improve support and justice outcomes for victims and survivors. But in its review of the proposed legislation, the Justice Committee criticises its ability to meet Government commitments to enshrining the rights of victims in law; finding that “the draft Bill does not appear to do any more to achieve this than is already provided for in existing legislation.”
They continue: “The draft Bill includes overarching principles that are weaker than those consulted on and which, as currently drafted, will do little to improve agencies’ compliance with the Victims’ Code.”
The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) has called for this new law to deliver meaningful change for victims by enshrining measures including independent legal advice for rape survivors and safeguards to protect them from excessive police requests for their medical history, therapy notes and other personal data.
We have also called on the Government to use the Bill to address inequalities in access to justice and specialist support for marginalised groups, including Black, minoritised and migrant women, Deaf and disabled women and LGBT+ survivors.
We welcome many of the Committee’s findings and echo the Committee’s disappointment in the narrow scope of the Bill, which could have the potential to improve so many victims’ experiences, but is instead unambitious and introduces limited changes.
Firewall between the police and immigration enforcement
We welcome the Committee’s clear recommendation that a complete firewall between the police and immigration must be introduced with immediate effect. This is something that has been loudly called for by a broad coalition of voices from across the violence against women and girls sector and beyond, including the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) and Southall Black Sisters, and the Step Up Migrant Women coalition convened by LAWRS.
We are pleased to see recognition that such data sharing denies safety to victims and witnesses and may allow perpetrators to commit further offences. The Government must now urgently implement a firewall so that no victim is faced with the impossible and unacceptable choice of staying with a perpetrator or facing destitution and potential deportation.
Funding for specialist support services
We consistently speak out about the Government’s chronic and historic failure to properly fund life-saving and life-changing specialist support services. This leaves support organisations on their knees and many having closed or on the brink of collapse.
The report states that the Bill will likely put additional strain on services. This cannot be allowed to happen and the Government must urgently heed the recommendation to provide additional funding for services. If the Government wants victims to be empowered to exercise their rights, they must also provide funding so that victims can access the support they are entitled to.
EVAW, Rape Crisis England & Wales and the Centre for Women’s Justice have been campaigning for rape survivors’ counselling notes to be kept confidential, because they have no place in a courtroom. We’re pleased to see the Committee acknowledge that the primary purpose of counselling is therapeutic, not investigative.
This deeply harmful practice means that highly personal and irrelevant information about a victim’s private life are put on trial in an attempt to ‘discredit’ the survivor. This treatment of survivors’ therapy notes deters many from life-saving support at a time when it is needed most, and is part of a wider culture of victim-blaming that is endemic within our justice system.
Disappointingly, the Committee found that affording a higher level of confidentiality to rape victims’ counselling notes is ‘out of scope’ of the Victims’ Bill, despite having been critical of the Bill being too limited. This is not our understanding and we will continue to campaign for therapy notes to be granted legal privilege so that there is less chance that defence barristers will use them against survivors.
Legal privilege of rape survivors’ counselling notes has been done well elsewhere, for example in New South Wales, and we are clear there is no real justification for it not being included in scope, rather it constitutes a lack of political will.
While we welcome the strengthening of the Victims’ Commissioner’s powers, including retaining national oversight of the Victims’ Code, such provision will only work if the Commissioner role is supported to provide the independent scrutiny and victims’ voice that is so desperately needed. Recent statements from the current Victim’s Commissioner’s office do not inspire confidence that this will be the case.
Independent legal advice for survivors
There is a clear need for independent legal advice to be provided to survivors, which the report recognises. We see this as vital for survivors expected to engage in a criminal justice system that is so evidently failing to deliver justice, and which so often leaves women and girls wishing they hadn’t reported.
Human Rights Act
Sadly the Committee’s report does not recognise the severe threat posed to human rights by this Government, and how vital the Human Rights Act is to hold the state to account for the failures of authorities.
Instead, the Committee recommends that “measures to support victims set out in the Victims Bill and Code should not be diminished by reforms to the Human Rights Act”. It acknowledges that “the safeguards provided by that Act are also important given the weaknesses in the Victims Bill with respect to the ability for individuals to enforce their rights under the Victims’ Code”.
Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), said:
“In its current form, the Victims’ Bill is a missed opportunity to transform the justice and support landscape for victims and survivors, who continue to be appallingly failed at every step of the justice process.
The Government is not doing enough to deliver on its claims that this Bill will put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system.
While this report highlights some important needs regarding a firewall between the police and immigration enforcement, and funding for specialist services, the Bill neglects to address massive issues when it comes to the privacy rights of rape survivors.
We remain concerned that this Bill won’t do anywhere near enough to serve victims, especially with the criminal justice system in its current state of unprecedented chaos. In particular, it will do nothing to address the delays victims face in the criminal justice system, shortages of specialist support, poor practice and mistreatment of survivors, and invasive intrusions into their personal lives.”