Shami Chakrabarti is Labour's Shadow Attorney General. Read the VICE investigation into rape victims being told not to go to therapy here.
Our criminal justice system is at breaking point – and never is this more alarmingly evidenced than by its handling of sexual violence. Recent Ministry of Justice figures show all prosecutions at their lowest levels since 1970, and those for sex offences falling by a third between 2017 and 2018.
First we learned of rape trials collapsing due to late or non-disclosure of evidence. Then we became aware of the widespread practice of complainants being required to hand over their mobile phones to the police; a new police form with dubious legal foundation gives little regard to the inconvenience and humiliation that this "digital strip-searching" causes, and whether it is really necessary in a particular case.
Now, thanks to a VICE investigation, comes the scandalous revelation that rape complainants are being actively discouraged from accessing vital mental health services under contradictory and embarrassing 17-year-old guidance. The fear, we are told, is of victims being thought to have been "coached" by therapists, to have developed false memories or otherwise have their credibility as witnesses undermined.
When VICE approached me, I could barely believe what I was hearing – and my anger was made worse by the initial call coming during an otherwise extremely heartening Mental Health Awareness Week. British civil society will now allow princes, politicians, actors and athletes to share their mental health challenges in order to stop others suffering alone. Yet our austerity-inspired government and the public services that it has so starved of money and morale cannot do the same for some of the most vulnerable victims of some of the most serious of crimes.
Once more, the approach is clumsy, cruel and outmoded. Rape trials are inevitably difficult, so demoralised and under-resourced prosecutors will become tempted to de-prioritise them. Text messages or social media posts might just be relevant in a minority of cases, so the same prosecutors might be tempted to take mobile phones en masse, just in case. But what about proportionality? What about the collateral human cost to the victim? No wonder so many are being discouraged from coming forward to put their faith in the system.
It's almost as if one of the extreme Brexiteer pretenders to the Tory crown has already turned the clock back to the days before the Human Rights Act. Back then, victims had few legal protections and women were cross-examined in person by their rapists for days on end at the Old Bailey. (Yes, that really happened well into the 1990s.)
The guidance on therapy for victims that VICE showed me does not look that much fresher or more enlightened. Only a close reading of the particular web page gives the game away. The introduction is signed by a trio of ministers who haven’t held those particular posts at the same time since 2002. Have there really been no developments in professional thinking about trauma, treatment and memory since then? Or could it be that a system without funding for treatment is desperate enough to rely on the flimsiest excuse for not providing it?
To suggest that a rape victim be denied counselling or therapy for perhaps months and months while awaiting trial is as ridiculous as denying the victim of any form of violence vital medical treatment for their physical wounds. In some cases, it might be even worse. Psychiatrists and therapists that I consulted made it clear to me that any risk of planting false memories or coaching a complainant could be mitigated by proper consultation with, guidance to, and accreditation of professionals.
We can be sensitive to the forms of therapy which may or may not be appropriate at a particular stage after a rape. And we must work with and value the expertise of women’s organisations and survivors groups which have been fighting to overcome this injustice for some time. Surely with good will and adequate resources, it is not beyond our wit and wisdom to strike the right balance.
Victims should never be required to make the false choice between justice and recovery. I hope it isn’t too much to ask of what’s left of this current government to turn its mind to the victims of rape, a terrible crime that can break minds and lives as well as bones. But if, as I fear, this plea falls on deaf ears, the next Labour government will have to pick up the pieces.