Political Stalemate Failing Victims of Sexual Crime

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The lack of a functioning executive means that victims of sexual crime in Northern Ireland risk being left behind those in other jurisdictions, according to the Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime Geraldine Hanna.

In her report , “‘A ‘Second Assault’ The Impact of Third Party Disclosure Practices On Victims Of Sexual Abuse In Northern Ireland”,  published today (Monday 27 November) the Commissioner Designate has called for new legislation to protect the privacy rights of victims by preventing the unnecessary disclosure of private information, such as counselling records.

Similar protections to empower victims to access therapy without fear of infringements on their privacy are being considered in England and Wales. The Law Commission has recently consulted on proposals which would increase the protections governing the disclosure and admissibility of victim’s personal records. An amendment to the government’s Victims and Prisoners Bill will also mean that police should only request material that is absolutely necessary and proportionate to ensure that vulnerable victims aren’t put off seeking vital support.

However, without a functioning Executive, no such legislation can be passed here.

Some victims of sexual crime reported that disclosure of their private information had felt as bad as the crime itself, or worse. The threat of disclosure has led some to defer vital healthcare until after their trial is finished or reject it entirely.

Speaking during the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime Geraldine Hanna said:

“Victims of sexual crime told me that current practices around the disclosure of private information are failing them and often felt like ‘a second assault’. 

“What these victims need is new legislation to better protect their privacy rights and prevent them from being re-traumatised by the disclosure of irrelevant private information. 

"My investigation has found that this protection should not just cover counselling records, but also health, social care and educational records.

“We’re not alone in this. Other jurisdictions are looking at this, or have already introduced relevant legislation. 

“However, the longer Stormont remains in stasis, the more victims of sexual crime in Northern Ireland risk being left behind.

“If we had a functioning Executive and Assembly, MLAs could introduce a law that means no future victim has to ever consider choosing between healthcare and justice again.”

Working closely with criminal justice agencies and victims of sexual crime, the Commissioner Designate has also identified serious failures in the justice system to adhere to existing legal safeguards.

One of the recommendations from the Commissioner Designate is for urgent work by the PPS, the PSNI, the Bar of NI and the Judiciary, to address failures to comply with existing rules and guidance on the privacy rights of victims.

This recommendation follows a report by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) from 2022 which identified ways different parts of the criminal justice system were not complying with those existing rules and guidance.

Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime Geraldine Hanna continued:

“Before the introduction of any new legislation there is work that should be done, right now, in every part of the justice system, to prevent unnecessary distress to victims. 

“The PPS, the PSNI, the Bar of NI, the Judiciary and all criminal justice agencies should immediately look closely at their roles and commit to do more to protect the privacy rights of victims.

“From my engagement with those bodies, I know there is a commitment to increase victims’ confidence in the system and I will continue to work closely with them to improve current practices within the existing legislative framework.”

To protect victims of sexual crime the report also recommends:

  • The PSNI, PPS and the SOLA (Sexual Offences Legal Advisors) service should work together to improve the referral process to refer victims to the SOLA service as soon as possible to assist victims to understand their rights and to make representations around the disclosure of their information.
  • The Judiciary fully implement the Gillen Review recommendation that any applications to access or introduce evidence relating to criminal injury compensation is duly scrutinised before any trial

The full report can be read here - A ‘Second Assault’ - The impact of third party disclosure practices on victims of sexual abuse in Northern Ireland. | Commissioner for Victims of Crime Northern Ireland (cvocni.org)