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Health / Sexual violence charity says new forensic examination service is a ‘huge leap’ forward

NEW legislation which enables people to self-refer for a forensic examination after a sexual assault or rape through the NHS instead of reporting it to the police has been hailed as a “massive step forward” by a local charity.

Compass Centre service manager Lisa Ward said it is also a “huge leap for survivors in Shetland for whom access to forensic medical services on isle has gone from non-existent to what we see today in the course of just six short years”.

The new Scottish legislation aims to give people who have suffered sexual assault or rape more control.

People aged 16 and over can ask for a forensic examination through the NHS, with their health board able to hold the DNA for up to 26 months.

The Compass Centre service manager Lisa Ward.

Previously people had to report the incident to the police to get an examination.

Ward said sexual violence charity the Compass Centre is “grateful to all the staff at NHS Shetland who have made this happen and are hopeful that this will make the choice to access justice after sexual crime feel more accessible to survivors in the isles in future”.

“Currently, the vast majority of people who experience sexual violence choose not to formally report,” the service manager added.

“This can be for any number of reasons such as fear of being judged, blamed or disbelieved by friends and loved ones, worries about stigma in the wider community, or fear for their safety and privacy in everyday life.

“Sadly, many survivors have also been deeply traumatised by their experiences of the justice system and the public knows this. Despite a lot of excellent work in this area, this has been and continues to be a major barrier to reporting.”

Ward said most people who are seen at the Compass Centre have never reported the police, or are just now deciding to report historical cases.

It is therefore hard to say how many of these people may have reported at the time if this facility had been available to them.

“It’s one very significant step among many that makes the choice to report more accessible,” Ward continued.

“What survivors say they like about this new service is that it allows them the time and space to make a choice. In the aftermath of sexual violence, people are often traumatised, disorientated, numb, depressed or otherwise feel and act differently than their normal selves.

“During this time, they may be grappling with worries for their own safety and feelings of responsibility for others’ safety, concerns about their personal relationships (most perpetrators are known to victim survivors), and feelings of grief, shame, and anger.

“Making a free and uncoerced decision in this headspace is incredibly difficult, especially when the consequences are unknown. People tell us that the justice system can feel opaque and intimidating.

“Making an informed decision about reporting when you do not know that entails is impossible.”

This new service means that anyone who has been a victim of a sexual crime can have evidence gathered in a healthcare setting, by trained staff, and can focus on their recovery first and foremost.

Afterwards, they can be supported in their recovery and work with a trusted advisor to learn about what the process of reporting is like, if they are interested in doing so.

Ward said the charity’s advocacy service, which supports those considering reporting or who have reported to the criminal justice system, is designed specifically for this purpose.

“We have supported many survivors with the decision to report and stood alongside them through the criminal justice process from start to end.

“We are here to listen, to answer your questions and to support your choices, no matter what you choose to do. Sexual violence is a violation of a person’s free choice and agency.

“If we are to make access to criminal justice as accessible as possible, then it is vital that we make choice central to all that we do. This new service is a very important step forward in doing so.”

Speaking earlier this week, Scotland’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Gregor Smith said: “It is very important that everyone knows about this service and while I hope that people will never need to use it, for those that do, knowing where to turn for support and information is a vital part of giving them back control.”