For a survivor of sexual assault, the legal system can be frightening, frustrating and confusing. Dealing with law enforcement, attorneys, and judicial officers involve systems and settings that can be intimidating. Investigators can make a victim feel anxious, uncertain, and incredulous. Meetings with prosecutors can be extremely stressful, and court appearances can be overwhelming. The required time and effort it takes for a case to go through the criminal justice system can make a survivor reluctant to pursue the case.

A legal advocate provides objective, knowledgeable, and supportive intervention on behalf of the survivor, making sure that they have the necessary information about the criminal justice system and civil legal system to make critical decisions. They also provide individual advocacy to the survivor to help ensure that their rights are upheld in systems and institutions.

The Legal Advocate's Basic Responsibilities to the Survivor are:

To serve as a liaison between the survivor and the legal system(s).

The advocate acts as facilitator between the survivor and all criminal justice agencies including Police, Sheriff's departments, District Attorney's offices, the Courts, Probation, Parole, and Corrections. The advocate works to ensure necessary agency communication with the survivor and to ensure that they are treated with sensitivity and respect throughout their dealings with criminal justice personnel.

Similarly the advocate acts as a support person to a survivor in civil court when the survivor is pursing or responding to family law matters such as a custody order or protection order.

To facilitate the survivor's decision-making.

The trauma of sexual assault may be compounded by the numerous decisions a survivor is required to make immediately following the attack; a time when they may be in crisis. The advocate's role is: to assist in identifying those decisions that need to be made; to provide them with necessary information in order for the survivor to make informed decisions; and to help the survivor consider their options. Once decisions are made, the advocate is responsible for supporting the survivor in the implementation of those decisions.

Advocates should not make decisions for the survivor.

To inform the survivor of their rights

The rights of a sexual assault survivor should be reviewed verbally. An advocate should consider that not all survivors read or speak English. Information about their rights should be made available to the survivor in the language with which they are most comfortable. The advocate should answer any questions, and to the extent possible, ensure that survivor understands the information. The advocate should take care to not cross the line from providing legal information into providing legal advice.

To prepare the survivor for the legal system (criminal or civil) experience by providing them with necessary and relevant information.

One way to help survivors regain control in their lives is to make them aware in advance of what to expect.

The advocate should:

  • be familiar with police and court procedures, and be able to prepare the survivor for the possibilities ahead of time,
  • help the survivor sort out their thoughts on the many difficult decisions that need to be made and
  • also prepare the survivor for all possible outcomes during court proceedings.

For example in the criminal justice system, the advocate needs to prepare the survivor for a "not guilty" finding. Similarly in civil court, the advocate should prepare the survivor for not getting whatever they are asking the court to grant them (e.g. protection order, custody order, etc.)

The survivor may have many questions, and an effective advocate should be willing to help them get the answers to those questions. The advocate should become familiar with the people in the criminal justice system and civil court who can provide information.

An effective advocate will not withhold information that may be emotionally difficult for the survivor to hear. If the survivor finds that the advocate has not been completely honest, credibility and trust will diminish.

To accompany the survivor as they move through the criminal justice system and at civil court proceedings.

An advocate may offer comfort, companionship and reassurance to the survivor during the police interview, court procedures, hearings, and a trial. The advocate should take their cue from the survivor about the nature of accompaniment. Some survivors may want to talk; others may choose to be silent. In some instances, the survivor may want to be left alone. In this case, the survivor should know that an advocate is available if needed.

To inform the survivor of other services available to them in addition to legal advocacy.

The advocate should be aware of the survivor's diverse and multiple needs and link them with other services provided by the organization and/or community at large. The advocate should pay particular attention to the need for a safety plan, shelter, medical services and follow-up, as well as counseling. When community referrals are needed, the advocate should have a local resource guide or provide information about appropriate resources.

To document services provided according to program requirements.

Record-keeping, documentation, and maintaining program statistics are important functions that advocates need to complete with respect to the services they provide.

To reach out for assistance and support when necessary.

As they carry out the role of providing assistance to others, advocates typically need to seek support themselves. It is important to share experiences, reflect on insights and problem-solve with others on a regular basis. Being clear and supportive with others requires being receptive to assistance for oneself.