Lack of female doctors and forensic examinations delays key issues for rape victims

Access to female doctors and delays for forensic examinations are the two key issues for victims of rape and sexual assault, MSPs have heard.

A lack of female doctors made forensic examinations ‘distressing and frankly unacceptable’. Picture: Getty

During an evidence session yesterday about medical services for victims of sexual offences, witnesses described the existing system as “an embarrassment” and said forensic examinations were “distressing and frankly unacceptable”.

Planned legislation proceeding through the Scottish Parliament aims to put a greater emphasis on the healthcare elements, rather than a predominantly justice-focused approach.

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The proposed Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill would also give women across Scotland the right to “self-refer”, having forensic evidence taken and retained – even if they decide not to report the incident to police – as well as assessments for their healthcare needs.

Rape Crisis Scotland chief executive Sandy Brindley said: “Access to a female doctor is the most important issue brought up by complainers speaking to us in terms of what causes the most trauma.

“But another significant issue that came up in the conversation we had with survivors last week was delays. You cannot overestimate the amount of distress caused by having to wait for a forensic examination.”

Addressing the “two key functions” of the bill, Ms Brindley said: “One is self-referral but the other – just as importantly – is putting the responsibility on to health, to make it really clear that health has a responsibility to respond to the needs of rape survivors. That hasn’t necessarily happened to date.

“If we are going to get those services to the stage where they’re not an embarrassment to us as a country, I think it will need significant investment.”

Ms Brindley also stressed the importance of properly funding independent advocacy services to support survivors before, during and after their forensic examinations.

“Feedback from survivors is that it’s a life-saving service but there are real issues about capacity in terms of funding,” she said. “Some of our services have to operate waiting lists, which I don’t think is acceptable for services of this nature.”

She said victims, where appropriate, needed to have “some level of control” during the process.

Ms Brindley said: “We need to make sure that they get enough information to give informed consent to the forensic [examination] beforehand.

“I think that should be written information – and that is being developed through the work of the chief medical officer’s taskforce.”