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Part of: Deciding to report or not

Understanding the legal consequences

Legal proceedings can be complex and different from one country to another. If we are thinking of reporting what happened to us to the police, there are some legal rights and issues that may affect your experience. These are just guidelines, we’d always advise checking the full rights with experts in our respective country or territory where we are reporting the assault.

  • Anonymity and confidentiality. In most countries, a sexual assault survivor is by default guaranteed anonymity by law for life, regardless of the circumstances, and even after the case is closed or withdrawn. This means our name cannot be released to the press, unless consent is provided by the survivor in writing. However, it is important to remember that most medical notes will still have our real names on them and if there are police officers involved with our case, they will know our real identity. We’d advise checking the specific anonymity laws within the country or territory where you are reporting the assault.

  • The nature of evidence. When we are involved in a case against someone our body, words and other possessions become part of something bigger, with many more people having access to these things than usual. We may be asked to do things that feel counterintuitive to what makes us feel better, such as not eating or drinking, showering, washing our clothes or visiting the place where the assault took place. Giving our phone as evidence also means that the police can review everything on it and this can feel like an invasion of privacy. Who we tell about our experiences, and how we tell them, can also affect how our account of the events will be used in a case. We’d advise checking with legal specialists whether telling others about our experience can be used as evidence in our country or territory where you are reporting the assault.

  • Reporting your assault later. Some of us may not come forward with our sexual assault until days, months or even years after it happened, as it can understandably take time to feel able or confident enough to disclose what has happened to the police. There are different requirements for reporting historical assaults in each country, and these can affect the damages and compensation that could be provided to the survivor(s), and whether the police will continue with the investigation. Some countries/regions/states (i.e. in the US it is up to the state), there are legal limitations that determine the amount of time the state has to charge someone with a crime.

  • Sometimes, the police will make a decision not to charge. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot pursue prosecution through other means. Some countries have a victim right to review. This right to review may be only for specific aspects of the case: for example, when the prosecution has decided to drop all charges after a police charge has been made. There are also alternatives to criminal court proceedings, such as restorative justice, which we can consider if the police have decided not to bring any charges against the perpetrator.

  • Private prosecutor. When the case goes to the court, a lawyer is assigned who works for the court. Depending on the charge and where we live, we may also request to be represented by a private prosecutor that we select and pay ourselves. It’s important to note that it is very expensive to hire a private prosecutor, so this might not be an option for everyone.

  • Bail. Not everybody who is charged with a crime necessarily spends all the time leading up to the trial in jail. So, it’s possible that our abuser(s) may be released from jail on bail. This often means they have to obey certain conditions and restrictions about where they can go and who they can be in contact with until the trial. If our safety is at risk with our abuser on bail, it’s worth knowing that we may be entitled to ask for a protection order to protect our safety until the trial takes place.

  • Verdict. After the court case, there will be a verdict. Usually, there are two kinds of verdict: guilty and not guilty (although in some places there are other types of verdict, such as ‘not proven’). If there were multiple charges in the criminal court case, the abuser might be given a guilty verdict for some of these charges, and a not guilty verdict for others. After a guilty verdict, the abuser(s) will be given a sentence, which could involve time in prison, or time outside prison living under certain restrictions, or other outcomes.

  • Appeals. In most places, a person who is given a guilty verdict can apply to appeal that verdict. They might apply to appeal, for example if there is new evidence, or their legal team believes that the trial did not follow the legal procedures correctly. Just because somebody applies for an appeal, it does not necessarily mean their application will be accepted, or that there will be another trial, so ask the legal team to update you if this happens.

  • Legal processes outside of criminal prosecution. When going through the process of reporting our sexual assault, there may be options for financial compensation following the assault. This compensation might cover physical and mental injuries, as well as compensation for things like personal injury, losses from damage to property, taking time off work, medical expenses, travel expenses or pain and suffering. Check if the country or territory allows for court-awarded compensation and if this applies to the assault. If it doesn’t, if our attacker hasn’t been caught, if our attacker goes to prison without a compensation set, or if our attacker can’t pay the damages awarded to us, look to schemes or funds available in the country that can help us and their guidelines for applying. It is important to remember to check not only the guidelines but also the timeframes, regulations and rules on claim applications and evidence. We may also apply for legal help or private prosecutions for damages.

  • Withdrawing statements. Sometimes we might change our mind after reporting sexual assault and that is okay. We’ve written more about this in Being okay with changing your mind. The prosecution may still decide to continue the case despite the withdrawal of your statement. This will depend on many factors and you can check the guidelines for the country or territory. This may depend on the stage of the case and how much evidence there is against the attacker. If the prosecution decides to not go ahead with the case, it will be harder to reopen the case again.

  • Mandatory Reporters. Some people are required to report assaults to the police, especially if they know the victim is/was a minor (usually under the age of 18) or elderly (over the age of 65). These people are known as mandatory reporters and they are often those in positions of authority at schools, care homes, or places working with vulnerable people. It is important to understand that if we are within a mandatory reporting age, that the person we told about our assault might be required to report it to the police, even if we don’t want them to. If this is something that concerns us, we’d advise checking the mandatory reporting age and guidelines within your country or territory before telling someone about our assault.