Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar is promoting a bill that would allow victims of sex crimes to receive legal aid from the moment they file a complaint.
Sa'ar is also advocating for Israel’s inclusion in the Istanbul Treaty to combat violence against women and domestic violence.
Currently, legal aid in Israel is given to sex crime victims only after criminal proceedings have been initiated, and is restricted to specific crimes such as rape, statutory rape, sodomizing a minor, or in cases of sex crimes within the family. In civil suits, legal aid is given only subject to financial eligibility tests.
According to the new proposal, sex crime victims will be able to receive legal aid from the questioning stage, and in a civil proceeding without a financial eligibility test. At the same time, the bill is expected to also expand legal counsel for proceedings in offenses such as abuse of an authority position by therapists or clergy. The budgetary cost of the amendment to the law is estimated at 12 million shekels annually.
According to the justice minister, expanding access to legal aid stems from the understanding that sexual assault is a severe, unique, and traumatic experience. “This is another step in a series of legislative amendments which I am leading for victims of sex crimes, such as legislation for compensating victims of sex crimes immediately upon conviction,” said Saar.
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“All amendments are intended to improve the treatment of victims by enforcement agencies,” in order to optimize the rehabilitative response provided to them.
The amendment to the law is consistent with the recommendations of the inter-ministerial committee, headed by former judge Dvora Berliner, to examine the treatment of sex crime victims in criminal proceedings, and allows for continual guidance throughout the criminal proceeding, according to the minister.
In January 2020 Supreme Court President Esther Hayut adopted some of the committee’s recommendations and published a new procedure for sex crime victims in courts. It included, among other things, an order to hear the testimony of sex crimes victims first thing in the day, and that the victim's testimony be heard continuously – inasmuch as is consistent with their wellbeing. Another directive stipulated that in any proceeding pertaining to a sex crime charge heard at a district court, the panel of judges will be gender-mixed.
Orit Sulitzeanu, Director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, said the advancement of the memorandum is “a significant and groundbreaking achievement, which testifies to real understanding by the Justice Minister of the implications of sexual trauma. There is no doubt that aid is needed right from the moment of complaining. This is a critical phase. This decision is also very significant as it prevents discrimination between those who can afford legal representation, and those who lack such resources” she added.