By Spring 2021 M-VETS Student Advisor Raphael Johnson
The Department of Defense reaffirmed its commitment to protecting and supporting victims of domestic violence by extending Special Victim Counsel services to military-connected victims of domestic violence. The Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Department of Defense to extend Special Victim Counsel services to personnel previously not authorized assistance from military attorneys, uniformed and civilian.[i] Ordinarily, only servicemembers, retirees, and their family members are authorized to receive legal assistance from judge advocates and civilian attorneys. While victims of crime have always received support from judge advocates in their role as prosecutors and legal assistance attorneys, victims were not the judge advocate’s “client.”
The establishment of the Special Victim Counsel program several years ago changed the way legal assistance is provided to victims of sexual assault. Special Victims Counsel are uniformed military attorneys (judge advocates) and civilian attorneys that have received specialized training on advising victims of sexual assault in order to better assist victims in navigating the military justice process.[ii] The military culture presents barriers that lead to underreporting of crimes that undermine the tenets of military service, degrade good order and discipline, and negatively impact victims’ ability to seek justice. The military’s structure, jargon, and traditions present communication challenges for unfamiliar personnel in their attempts to conduct simple business transactions on military installations. Reporting crimes on military installations is a difficult task.
Victims of sexual assault were not provided the required assistance, and the military responded by ensuring each victim was entitled to a Special Victim Counsel. Additionally, Congress directed the military to provide Special Victim Counsel support to requesting victims within 72 hours of the request.[iii] Each military branch has implemented the Congressional guidance uniquely, but the common result is that victims of sexual assault, and now, domestic violence, will have the option to be represented by an experienced attorney that will explain the military justice process and advocate for the victims’ rights. Special Victim Counsel services extend to child victims, non-Department of Defense affiliated personnel, and non-U.S. citizens.
The military has increased its accountability for the crimes of its servicemembers which has led to an overall increase of unrestricted reports of sexual assault. This does not indicate an increase of sexual assaults throughout the military. The “unrestricted” report refers to the military’s ability to prosecute perpetrators for their crimes. A victim’s ability to leverage the expertise of a Special Victim Counsel early in the potential military justice process is critical in deciding whether to pursue an unrestricted report.
The effectiveness of Special Victim Counsel services has achieved “proof of concept” and will be utilized to ensure victims of domestic violence have a voice. Victims will receive free legal assistance related to the domestic violence and related incidents, despite their Department of Defense affiliation, regardless of the disposition of their legal matter. While the overall goal is to eradicate sexual assault and domestic violence in our society and in the military, until that goal is reached, victims must be empowered throughout the process. Please contact your local installation legal office if you need a Special Victims Counsel.
[i] Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.