WASHINGTON – The Army plans to expand its Special Victims’ Counsel Program this fiscal year, responding to a greater need for legal counsel and victim representation at some installations.
SVCs are uniformed lawyers who serve under the Army’s Office of the Judge Advocate General. They provide victims of an alleged sex-related offense with counsel throughout the legal process. As an advocate for victims’ rights following a sexual assault where a Soldier is the alleged perpetrator, they provide clients access to legal representation that victims of non-military sexual assaults typically do not have.
The National Defense Authorization Act for FY20 extended the SVC program’s pool of potential clients. As of Dec. 1, the military services expanded the availability of legal representation to certain eligible victims of domestic violence offenses.
The service is adding 30 full-time SVC lawyers this fiscal year to bring its total to 74, with an additional 17 positions expected to be authorized in fiscal 2022.
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.
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. He pointed out that 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. The SVCs focus solely on the victims’ interests.
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 both an interpreter and counselor.
“It’s almost like a foreign language,” said Lt. Col. Elliott Johnson, SVC Program deputy manager. “For (a victim) to be sitting in a courtroom and hearing the judge, defense attorney and prosecutor speaking this legal language that is unfamiliar, (it’s only fair for that individual) to know what they're talking about or thinking about the case.”
When a member of the military community reports a sexual assault, the SHARP program representative will inform the victim of his or her right to use SVC services. If the individual chooses to exercise that option, the appointed legal counsel will explain the military justice processes for sexual crimes. They also make victims aware of their right to confer with the prosecuting attorney with the SVC present.
Active-duty Soldiers, Reservists and members of the National Guard in an active-duty or AD-for-training status can request SVC services. Dependents and Army Civilians also can access them. The program covers all Army installations, however, not all of them has a full-time, assigned SVC and some must facilitate services to victims remotely or the legal representative will travel to smaller, remote locations.
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 program is of tremendous value,” Hamilton said. “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 junior Soldiers get briefed on the SVC program upon in-processing to their new duty station; however, many 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 assist and counsel people who have experienced sexual trauma or domestic violence. The training also covers victims’ legal rights.
Additional SVC courses focus on the military legal process including rules of evidence. Students also practice how to interview a victim and take part in role-playing exercises to hone their skills
Due to pandemic restrictions, appointed individuals currently take the SVC training course remotely, however, Hamilton said he hopes the course will return to a classroom setting in 2021.