Acknowledging the full impact of sexual abuse and assault

Yesterday the Sentencing Council, a Ministry of Justice public body that issues sentencing guidelines to UK courts, launched a consultation on its proposals to update its guidance to courts on sexual offences.  These proposals have the potential to revolutionise, for the better, how survivors of sexual abuse and assault are considered by the judicial system, and how the full trauma of sexual offences is taken into account when sentencing perpetrators.

The new proposal aims to accomplish three goals in revising sentencing for sexual offences:

  • to deal effectively with perpetrators;
  • to have sentences reflect the aggravating effects of modern technology in sexual offences; and
  • to shift the focus to the impact of offences on victims themselves.

The last is the most important.

Lord Justice Treacy, a member of the Council, has emphasised that the victim’s experiences must be a key aspect of sentencing:

The perspective of victims is central to the Council’s considerations.  We want to ensure sentences reflect everything the victim has been through and what the offender has done. . . We are looking at the whole context, not just the physical offence but also the tactics employed by offenders like grooming activity, the targeting of vulnerable victims, or abuse of a position of trust.

If in the end the Council’s guidelines reflect this same holistic approach to evaluating the circumstances and impact of sexual offences, it will represent a watershed for survivors.

But this progress shouldn’t stop at criminal sentencing.  The civil justice system also needs reform.  There are many unspoken biases and assumptions in civil justice that only serve to make survivors of abuse victims all over again.  One that is particularly stark is the way compensation is awarded.

For example, compensation for the psychiatric pain and suffering that victims of sexual abuse and assault can receive is effectively capped at about £82,000, according to the Judicial Studies Board Guidelines, which prescribe such awards.  Yet the damage from childhood sexual abuse in particular can be life-long, resulting in psychological illnesses like depression and anxiety, difficulties with relationships, chronic alcoholism, and suicide attempts and ideation, among many other potential impacts.  Lives that in some cases are devastated beyond repair may thus receive a pittance.  And while £82,000 is the maximum, that amount is rarely given out, and only in cases where an individual has almost no prognosis for recovery from crippling damage.  Psychiatric damage that is considered only “Moderately Severe” is capped at £39,150.  As a point of comparison the  Judicial Studies Board Guidelines provide for £40,000 to £60,000 if one has had a finger amputated as a result of personal injury.

Surely it is now time for the same considerations and understanding of the profound, enduring impact of sexual offences on victims to be applied to a re-think of levels of compensation.  But meanwhile, the new proposed sentencing guidelines are a sign that things seem to be moving in the right direction.

The press release from the Sentencing Council may be read here.