NEWS | Dec. 28, 2020

Army to widen scope of legal counsel program for victims of sexual assault

By Joseph Lacdan Army News Service

The Army looks to expand its Special Victims’ Counsel program this fiscal year, as the need for legal counsel and victim representation increased at some installations.

SVCs are uniformed lawyers who serve under the Army's Office of The Judge Advocate General who provide victims of an alleged sex-related offense with counsel throughout the legal process. SVCs advocate for victims’ rights following a sexual assault where a Soldier is the alleged perpetrator, providing clients access to legal representation that victims of non-military sexual assaults typically do not have.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 extended the SVC program’s pool of potential clients. In accordance with the act, since Dec. 1, military services must provide legal counsel to help victims of domestic violence offenses. The SVC program now provides legal representation to certain eligible victims of domestic abuse. The service is adding 30 full-time Special Victims’ Counsel lawyers this fiscal year to bring its total to 74 full-time SVCs. The Army will further increase SVC authorizations by an additional 17 in fiscal 2022.

As the national spotlight falls on Soldier deaths and alleged sexual assaults at Fort Hood, Texas, Col. Lance Hamilton, chief of the SVC program, reminds victims they can access the legal counsel services.

The SVC program has steadily grown since its 2013 inception, serving more than 12,000 victims while providing legal services that include advising victims on their right to protections from the accused, the right to be heard in court and the right not to be excluded from some proceedings.

Prosecutors seek justice in criminal cases and their interests often align with the victims. However, in rare cases, their goals more closely converge with those of government or society than the victim. The SVCs focus solely on the victims’ interests, Hamilton said.

Providing a way forward

 In the weeks following a sexual assault, a victim may find the legal proceedings difficult to follow and SVCs often act as a steady guide.

“It's almost like a foreign language,” said Lt. Col. Elliott Johnson, SVC deputy program manager. “For you to be sitting in a courtroom and you hear a judge, defense attorney, a prosecutor speaking this legal language that is unfamiliar to you, and you kind of want to know what they're talking about or thinking about your case.”

Upon reporting a sexual assault, Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP, representatives inform victims of their rights to use SVC services. If a victim chooses to use them, SVCs then explain the military justice processes to victims. They also make victims aware of victims’ right to confer with the prosecuting attorney with the SVC present.

Active duty Soldiers, Army Reserve and National Guard members in an active duty or active duty for training status can request SVC services. Dependents and Army civilians can also access them. The SVC program covers all Army installations, however, not every installation has a full-time, assigned SVC and some must facilitate services to victims remotely or an SVC will travel to smaller, remote installations.

SVCs also coordinate with SHARP to provide the full scope of assistance to victims in coordination with sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates.

“I think the SVC program is of tremendous value,” Hamilton said. “And it is extremely important to have an SVC, because it gives victims an opportunity to speak with legal specialists who are there on behalf of them.”

Hamilton said new Soldiers get briefed on the SVC program upon in-processing to their new duty station. However, many Soldiers don’t realize the importance of the services until they suffer a sexual assault themselves.

“You hear about it, but you don't really comprehend it until sadly you become a victim,” he said. “And at that point, the emotional trauma that goes with it may overwhelm an individual.”

Other services SVCs provide include consultation on the criminal liability of the accused, consultation and assistance with obtaining any protections offered by civilian and military orders, and eligibility and requirements for available benefits.

To become an SVC in the Army, Soldiers must be a licensed lawyer serving as a judge advocate and certified by The Judge Advocate General of the Army. They must attend a 10-day training course where they learn to advise and counsel people who have experienced military sexual trauma or domestic violence as well as courses on victims’ legal rights.

Then they take additional courses on the military legal process including military rules of evidence. Finally, they practice how to interview a victim and take part in role-playing exercises.

Due to pandemic restrictions, students currently take the SVC training course remotely, however, Hamilton said he hopes the course will return to a classroom setting in 2021.