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Civil Justice Practitioners

About This Section

This section is adapted with permission from the Victim Rights Law Center's manual Beyond the Criminal Justice System: Transforming Our Nation's Legal Response to Rape. We want to thank the center and the chapter's authors, Susan Vickers and Jessica Mindlin, for the use of their material.

The Victim Rights Law Center hopes that Beyond the Criminal Justice System and other tools available on its Web site will assist attorneys and advocates in their efforts to secure the best possible outcomes for their clients. The center has learned from past reform efforts that survivors' civil rights and remedies will be merely symbolic unless attorneys and advocates are able to enforce them and hopes more lawyers and advocates will join in this effort.

Too often, the criminal and civil authorities to whom victims turn for help fail to redress—and may even exacerbate—the harms. Survivors need attorneys and other advocates to champion their rights in both the civil and criminal arenas. Rape reforms in the criminal arena have yielded limited success for sexual assault survivors. Criminal prosecution may enhance victims' safety or help victims in their emotional healing, but such resolution may be remote in time and difficult to achieve.36 Civil courts, too, must become a vehicle for promoting victim healing and recovery.

Sexual assault is a private, personal event, but every victim's experience is uniquely influenced by the social and cultural context in which the assault occurs. To be effective, legal advocates need to understand the distinct legal and cultural norms of the community in which a victim resides. A truly effective legal response to sexual assault must include population-specific services and perspectives and a holistic approach to meeting survivors' legal needs.

For most victims of sexual assault, there is a hierarchy of fundamental needs. The most urgent needs include economic security, educational stability, emotional well-being, and physical safety. These needs are most acute in the first 6 months following an assault,37 but may persist and shift over time. The life-long consequences of sexual assault can be enduring and profound (e.g., failure to graduate from high school or college can reduce lifetime earnings, job loss can affect future employment prospects). Victim-centered civil remedies can help alleviate and even eliminate certain harms.

This section reviews victims' core civil legal needs: