Justice Minister Naomi Long has announced the launch of a pilot scheme to provide publicly funded independent legal advice to victims of sexual offences.
The provision of this additional support and legal advice for victims was identified as a key priority in the Gillen Review into the Law and Procedures in Serious Sexual Offences.
The Department of Justice has been working with both criminal justice partners and victim support services to develop a pilot scheme to provide legal advice to complainants in serious sexual offence cases. From 1 April, adult complainants will have access to fully qualified Sexual Offences Legal Advisors (SOLAs) through a pilot scheme delivered through Victim Support NI in both their Belfast and Foyle hubs.
Naomi Long said; “Cases involving sexual crime are some of the most intrusive and difficult for victims to endure. We want to do everything in our power to support victims of these crimes through every stage of their journey through the justice system.
“The launch of this pilot marks an important step towards the delivery of better outcomes in these cases, ensuring that victims understand their rights and can make informed decisions.”
SOLAs will provide advice in relation to the disclosure of evidence including medical records, counselling records and personal digital information, such as mobile phone records. They will also provide specific legal advice in relation to the disclosure of previous sexual history and ensure that their clients’ interests and wishes are communicated.
This pilot scheme is available to adult complainants only and will run for an initial two year period. The advice provided will be uncapped. The pilot will also help to inform the development of equivalent legal advice for complainants who are children and the development of a future mainstream service.
Whilst similar models exist, with this pilot Northern Ireland will become the first region in the UK to offer complainants legal advice on their right to privacy and previous sexual history in all serious sexual offence cases.
Naomi Long continued: “I am proud that Northern Ireland is the first region in the UK to offer this level of service to victims of serious sexual offences. I want to again thank colleagues across partner organisations for their efforts to take action to address the issues raised in the Gillen Review to date, and for engaging with my Department to develop this pilot. This pilot is about recognising the impact that the criminal justice system can have on complainants and providing a service that will enhance their confidence and support them in navigating through it.”
Chief Executive of Victim Support NI, Geraldine Hanna said: “Victim Support NI is delighted to be piloting the use of sexual offence legal advisors. This is a key recommendation from the Gillen Review and will help to protect the rights and interests of victims in these cases who very often feel side-lined and further harmed by the court process. This service will help increase the confidence of victims coming forward to report sexual violence as they can now receive free, independent legal advice regarding their rights in the process.”
For more information on the scheme visit www.victimsupportni.com/help-for-victims/solas/