The Home Office is consulting on the extent of police requests for third party material such as counselling notes, medical histories and school records for victims and survivors of rape and sexual violence, and proposals to improve the process and survivors experiences.
Solace has submitted a response supporting the Home Office proposal for a statutory duty on policing to be clear about the information being sought, the reason for requesting it and how it will be used, and the legal basis for the requests.
We also support a code of practice which underpins the duty and sets out the parameters of reasonable requests.
We cannot support the proposal for early advice from the Crown Prosecution Service at this point, because in our experience early advice from the CPS is not helpful where it is the CPS driving the requests for third party material – we find that the process can be opaque and that police will make speculative requests after seeking early advice. They rarely pushback on this from the CPS so it is down to us to do that.
In addition to the changes proposed, every victim going through the criminal justice process should have access to specialist support, and in the case of rape and sexual offence cases this will usually be an ISVA. The Government should enshrine that right in the forthcoming Victims Bill.
We support the recommendation made by the Centre for Women’s Justice, EVAW, Imkaan and Rape Crisis England and Wales in their November 2020 report on the decriminalisation of rape, calling for counselling and therapy notes to be non-disclosable giving them the same status as professional legal advice. Any risks around coaching can be mitigated by the accreditation and regulation of counsellors providing this support to victims/survivors. This model is also supported by the Victims Commissioner, who has highlighted the practice in Australia where they also have an adversarial justice system.
We also support the recommendation from the Victims Commissioner and the Centre for Women’s Justice that Victims must be provided with free legal advice and representation by a qualified lawyer when their Article 8 rights (respect for your family and private life) are engaged. The pilot scheme in Northumbria proved to be overwhelmingly positive, with advocates challenging data requests in 47% of cases and victim/survivors’ confidence and understanding of the criminal justice system improving alongside their ability to cope with the mental health impact of dealing with the system. The Centre for Women’s Justice has been providing free legal advice to ISVAs and their clients, including ours, for over three years and has seen a steady increase in requests, indicating a widespread need for this service.