Rape victims will now be allowed to fully access therapy, according to draft Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance released on Thursday for consultation. The announcement was made the same day as a new five-year strategy to tackle the plummeting rates of charging and prosecuting rape and serious sexual offences in the UK.
A 2019 VICE UK investigation revealed that CPS guidance from 2002 advised that complainants in sexual assault cases should not discuss their attack in therapy.
Women were warned that their counselling notes might be used in court during the trial if they did disclose the details of their case. In some cases, they were advised or put off accessing therapy altogether.
It was originally thought that evidence would be “tainted” in court by “interfering with the accuracy of their recall” – fears that have now been dismissed as “speculative” by the CPS.
Jenn Selby, 32, a journalist and Women’s Equality Party candidate, told VICE UK at the time: “I just thought, ‘Why aren’t I allowed to talk about what happened?’ It felt like I was on hold, my feelings were on hold, my emotions were on hold.”
The CPS draft guidance acknowledges that the criminal justice system and therapy options have “advanced considerably” since the 2002 guidance was issued.
“Exposure to criminal offending, in particular sexual violence, can lead to significant psychological and emotional difficulties,” it reads. “All victims must be fully supported to be able to give their best evidence with the minimum of distress and this guidance recognises that therapy that meets the particular needs of a victim will serve to enhance the ability of that victim to give their best evidence at court.”
It states that police can still gain access to the records but must first obtain the victim’s informed consent. They also must not recommend against seeking therapy or make “speculative enquiries” to access any counselling notes.
Siobhan Blake, CPS lead on rape, said: “We understand the importance of people accessing therapy after going through a traumatic experience, and want to assure victims and witnesses that they should continue to seek this support.”
Sexual violence campaigner and rape survivor Annie Tisshaw was one of the many women who was told she could not discuss her assault in pretrial therapy.
She told VICE News: “It feels like a big win for survivors. It’s going to be life-changing for people. It would have been for me, and that’s how I know that it’s going to have a big impact going forward.”
But she said it was troubling that counselling notes were still deemed admissible as evidence. “The CPS and police say they only request it if it’s necessary for the case, but from the campaigning I’ve done, all I’ve found is that everyone who’s got therapy, their notes were requested.”
Sophie Francis-Cansfield, senior campaigns and policy officer at Women's Aid, told VICE News: “Women’s Aid welcomes the revised pre-trial therapy guidance. The previous guidance was wrong in discouraging survivors from accessing therapy that can help them cope with the trauma of what they have experienced.
“We, alongside other VAWG sector organisations, are pleased to have fed in to the revised guidance and hope that going forwards survivors have a safe and confidential space in which they can access specialist therapeutic support.”