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Héraðsdómur Reykjavíkur Reykjavík District Court
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík District Court.

Increased Legal Rights for Victims of Sexual Assault in Iceland

Victims of sexual assault in Iceland can now receive information on the proceedings of the police investigation of their case and are permitted to be present at the trial, thanks to legislative amendments passed by Parliament, RÚV reports. A spokesperson from Stígamót, a centre for survivors of sexual violence, says the changes are a step forward but more needs to be done.

“I think this is a turning point and shows that there is will within the system towards victims of violence and there is a strong need for that. As we know, many cases are dismissed and victims are often unhappy with how they are received in the legal system and feel their need for justice is not fulfilled,” Steinunn Gyðu- og Guðjónsdóttir, a spokesperson for Stígamót, stated.

Victims defined as witnesses in their case

Icelandic legislation concerning sexual assault cases is structured in such a way that the victims in such cases are categorised as witnesses rather than parties to the case. This means they have little to no access to information concerning the proceedings of their case and may not be present at court proceedings. Experts and activists have been vocal in their criticism of this system, which was evaluated as lagging being most other Nordic countries when it comes to protecting victims’ rights.

The amendments change victims’ status in their case in several ways. Firstly, they may be present in closed court proceedings concerning their cases or watch them through a stream in the courthouse. Victims also receive increased access to the data of their case during the investigation and their legal rights protector (a lawyer assigned to protect their interests) is permitted to question those who are brought before the court.

Authorities also have additional responsibilities thanks to the amendments, including to inform the victim if a ruling has been made concerning the accused or if the accused has been released from custody.

Length of proceedings is next challenge to tackle

The bill has undergone considerable changes since it was first introduced last year. Steinunn is pleased the voices of Stígamót and the women’s movement have been heeded, but is disappointed that victims are still defined as witnesses in their own cases. This continues to limit their legal rights: they cannot, for example, sue the state if a mistake has been made in their case.

“As we have been seeing in the Court of Appeal, sentences are often being lightened because of how long the investigation has taken but victims do not receive such compensation.”

The procedural time for sexual assault cases can be up to a year and half with the police and just as long once they are in the hands of the prosecution. “The system really needs an injection of manpower and funding to fix that,” Steinunn stated. “This is just the legal status. Now the implementation needs to be fixed.”

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