Commissioner warns rape victims ‘forced to choose between healthcare and justice’

Rape victims are forced to choose between healthcare and justice, said the Commissioner for Victims of Crime in Northern Ireland.

Geraldine Hanna said the victims were asked to consent to the sharing of “excessive” personal data during the trials, including advisory notes.

The Commissioner for Victims of Crime focuses on the needs of the victims.

Ms Hanna, the first person to hold the position, was appointed by then Attorney General Naomi Long in June.

In Northern Ireland, victims of serious sexual abuse may be referred for counselling.

However, the police, the prosecution or the defense may request access to the records of their consultations and the victim may be questioned about them in court.

Ms Hanna said she is concerned that this prevents some victims from accessing important support or causes them to censor what they say during counseling “for fear of how it could be used against them.”

Speaking at the start of Sexual Assault Week, she said it was critical that victims of rape and sexual assault feel safe reporting crimes and working confidentially to heal trauma.

“One of my key priorities is to strengthen the protection of victims’ personal data, including the disclosure of advisory notes,” she said.

“I am deeply concerned that the disclosure of outside consultant notes in rape and sexual assault lawsuits is forcing victims to choose between access to healthcare and access to justice.”

A recent Commissioner for Information (ICO) report sets out recommendations for police and prosecutors to tighten security measures governing access to a victim’s personal data.

Ms. Hanna is engaging with lawyers, victim support organizations, prosecutors, the PSNI, and counseling organizations to explore proposals to limit or eliminate advisory briefs from criminal trials.

Joan Barnes, chief executive of Nexus NI, which supports people affected by sexual trauma, told BBC NI Good Morning Ulster that the charity receives requests for counseling from clients on a daily basis.

The story goes on

“Last year, Nexus made the decision that there are only two cases where we issue case notes to clients: directly to the client … or by court order,” she said.

“We had to take this action to try and reinforce the privacy, respect and dignity that our clients deserve. No one should have to choose between justice and their health.”

Marie Brown of Foyle Women’s Aid told BBC Radio Foyle that she has “over and over again” seen people get frustrated with the process or watch others’ experiences and think, “This isn’t worth it.”

“If someone seeks counseling, it should be a confidential service during which they share their innermost thoughts,” she said.

The State Attorney’s Office (PPS) said that all victims of a sex crime must be assured that they can receive therapeutic help without giving up their right to privacy.

“At PPS, we appreciate the deep and complex sensitivity surrounding victims accessing their personal information for the purposes of a criminal process,” said Ciarán McQuillan, head of PPS’ Major Crimes Unit.

“As prosecutors, we have a duty to apply the law and ensure a comprehensive commitment to a fair trial. Part of ensuring a fair trial is upholding our obligation to disclose information.”

Mr McQuillan said PPS would only ask police to request materials from third parties if that would be a reasonable line of inquiry.

PSNI Superintendent Lindsay Fisher said police welcome the opportunity to work together “to ensure that victims of sex crimes are best supported and assisted effectively.”

UK Information Commissioner John Edwards said: “Designated Commissioner Geraldine Hanna’s important work for crime victims in Northern Ireland, along with wider work across the UK, is vital to making progress so that victims don’t feel like they’re being treated like suspects.” .

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