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New bill places duty on health boards to permit self-referral for victims of rape and sexual assault

Image credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

New bill places duty on health boards to permit self-referral for victims of rape and sexual assault

Victims of rape and sexual assault will be able to refer themselves for forensic examination without having to report a crime to police and will be given more control over their evidence, a new Scottish Government bill proposes.

The Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) Scotland Bill, introduced to Scottish Parliament on Tuesday by Health Secretary Jeane Freeman, proposes an act to “confer on health boards functions relating to the provision of forensic medical services to victims of sexual offences”.

The law places a new statutory duty on health boards to provide forensic medical services to victims of sexual assault and allow for direct access rather than going through the police, by introducing “clear legal responsibilities” for boards to provide access to forensic medical services for victims through self-referral. Currently, two health boards – NHS Tayside and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde – have self-referral procedures in place.

The legislation would also establish “clear rights for victims to know what will happen with evidence taken from them”. Evidence would be stored, allowing victims time to decide whether they want to report the incident to police. Victims would also retain control over any samples or property held by the health board and can request that evidence is destroyed.

Rape Crisis Scotland chief executive Sandy Brindley welcomed the move as a “significant and important step forward” and hoped when made into law the bill will “transform how forensic services are provided to survivors of sexual violence across Scotland”.

“Sexual crimes are fundamentally abuses of power and about taking someone’s control – which is why it is so important and encouraging that this bill recognises and works to counter this by making sure that survivors are in control of procedures and processes around their evidence and property,” she said.

“Adopting a trauma-informed approach that focusses on the individual, on their needs and their health care is vital, and an important element of this is moving to using nurses as forensic examiners. This is a key development, and one which could make a huge difference.”

The government has also announced £200,000 of funding to develop the role of nurse sexual offence examiners in Scotland, qualified and experienced nurses who would undertake forensic medical examinations of victims of sexual crime and then give evidence in court.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) has been involved in the development of the nurse examiner workforce, and the Lord Advocate said: “Scottish prosecutors take crimes of rape and sexual offences extremely seriously. COPFS is committed to contributing to improvement of the criminal justice system.

“I welcome the initiative to develop the nurse sexual offence examiner role, which could enhance the service available to complainers. It will allow us to monitor and evaluate the scheme and seek to establish the role’s viability within the criminal justice system,” he said.

Freeman said the government was determined “to provide sensitive support to those who need it”.

“By ensuring the choice to self-refer is available consistently across Scotland, we hope that people who might currently be reluctant to make a police report are encouraged to access appropriate NHS services and get the support they need at a time of significant trauma,” she said.

A consultation on improving forensic medical services for victims of rape and sexual assault was launched in February this year, in response to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary's recommendation that services needed to improve and the legal position for aspects of service provision lacked clarity.

Read the most recent article written by Emily Woods - Talking point: Learning Scots

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