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Date Published
January 22, 2024

A new survey of counsellors and therapists has found that current laws and policing practices prevent rape survivors from accessing therapy, limit its effectiveness and pose serious ethical challenges.

The National Counselling and Psychotherapy Society (NCPS) survey of their members found:

  • Nearly 1 in 4 (23%) therapists have had counselling notes requested by the police 
  • 86% of these therapists stated police requests for counselling notes relate to clients who have experienced sexual violence “every time” or “most of the time”
  • Only 26% of therapists would feel confident in making decisions about disclosing counselling notes to the police when requested
  • 92% of therapists disagreed with government plans to take away the need for clients to consent to the police accessing their counselling notes 
  • 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 have been requested

The professional body found that the fear of counselling notes being shared leads clients to self-censor, which impacts the efficacy of therapy, while a number of therapists reported clients choosing not to access therapy at all in cases where their notes may be requested.

A significant number of therapists raised concerns about the ethical implications of routine requests for notes, leading to an impact on professional standards, while others expressed distrust or scepticism about the police or the legal system’s handling of such sensitive information. Therapists also raised issues related to survivors’ rights to privacy, as well as the risk of further harm or retraumatisation of clients.

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

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

“Police strong-arm us into handing over information, and guilt-trip us if we refuse. The law does need to be changed.”

– NCPS member

When a victim of rape reports the offence to the police, they are often put in an impossible position, 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

Current policing practices mean survivors experience routine, excessive requests for their notes as part of investigations that inappropriately focus 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. 

But therapy records are very rarely relevant to a case. Counselling is about feelings, not facts. A coalition of expert organisations, including the Centre for Women’s Justice, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Rape Crisis England & Wales 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. Almost all (96%) backed the women’s organisations’ call for free legal advice for clients whose notes have been requested.

“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
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.”

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.”

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 2018/9.

Policies and practices which leave victim-survivors feeling blamed, discredited and/or re-traumatised 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.” 

Media contact

Sinead Geoghegan, Communications Manager, End Violence Against Women Coalition – 07960 744 502


“Therapists are not taking statements for evidence in criminal proceedings. The accused has their rights read to them and the right to legal representation before being questioned. Is it reasonable that therapists should read survivors the same rights before starting therapy? Why is the victim/survivor denied privacy in the counselling room? If the accused has undertaken therapy, are those records also seized by the police or is their privacy more important?”
– NCPS member

“I’ve worked as a therapist supporting children and young people who have been sexually abused – notes are frequently requested as a ‘fishing’ exercise by police. People should be able to access therapy in order to heal.”
– NCPS member

“For those that have taken decades to report , to then ‘open the box’ and disclose childhood abuse without feeling they can access full therapy for years is incredibly difficult.”
– NCPS member 

“I think counsellors are generally scared of consequences to themselves if they don’t obey the police.”
– NCPS member

“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

When a client seeks therapy, it is understood what they say is confidential unless there are safeguarding concerns. If there are concerns, it raised with the client and they are informed there will be a break in confidentiality. If the police, or any other organisations were able to access client records without explicit consent, then how are we as therapists supposed to build trust with our clients?”
– NCPS member

Date Published
January 22, 2024
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