MP Thornberry: Tackling violence against women must be a central mission

Friday, 17th June — By Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry_Labour

Emily Thornberry

THE last time my government counterpart, the Attorney General, took questions in the House of Commons, she was asked by MPs what she was doing to help bring the perpetrators of rape and sexual assault to justice.

With reports of violence against women at their highest ever levels, and with the number of rapes leading to charges at a record low of 1.3 per cent I hoped Suella Braverman might announce some serious plans to support survivors and bring attackers to book.

Instead, the Attorney General just told the House that tackling violence against women and girls was a “central mission” of the government, and left it at that.

Worse still, she failed to make any mention of her department’s new guidelines on disclosure of evidence in criminal cases – quietly slipped out that very same morning – which risk making a traumatic justice process even more unbearable for survivors of rape and sexual assault.

The proposals are set to reverse a legal precedent established in 2004 which says that therapy notes only need to be disclosed to the defence if they undermine the prosecution’s case.

That precedent has been particularly important for survivors of rape and sexual assault, giving them the confidence to seek counselling before their attackers come to trial without having to worry that the notes of their therapy sessions will end up being exposed to the world.

However, under the Attorney General’s new proposals any notes considered “relevant” to a case will now have to be handed over, meaning that all the most private feelings shared by survivors can be used to try and humiliate and discredit them in court.

Faced with that prospect, many survivors will simply choose not to seek the therapy they need. And, at a time when rape cases typically take more than a thousand days to complete the court process, that will impose an unconscionable delay on the rights of survivors to seek much-needed support.

This week, I spoke with women’s groups across Islington to better understand how the current guidance is being applied and what impact the government’s proposals will have on support services.

I was struck by the countless testimonies of survivors, many of them LGBT+ and migrant women, struggling to uphold their rights in the face of a web of muddled and poorly enforced guidelines.

In many cases these stories ended with survivors feeling like they had no choice but to withdraw support for prospective trials, because the difficulties involved in getting to that point make the whole process too much to endure.

The government should be doing all it can to improve its guidelines and increase the support available, not make things even worse by rolling back one of the few concrete protections that survivors still have. That is why I have written to Suella Braverman, urging her reconsider this dangerous guidance before it comes into effect next month.

I hope we will win that battle, but what we cannot do, at least until the next election, is change the mindset of those at the top who created that guidance.

So while our fight to protect survivors’ services must continue in the short-term, what we need above all is a new set of ministers in charge of the criminal justice system who really will make violence against women their central mission.

Emily Thornberry is the MP for Islington South and Finsbury

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