A court ruling last week could set a precedent and encourage more victims of sexual assault to bring civil suits against their attackers after criminal proceedings have ended. The Tel Aviv District Court ordered compensation of 6.7 million shekels ($1.85 million) to be paid to a minor who was sexually assaulted by 11 other minors, and who also filmed and publicized the attacks.
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The sum might even grow larger, because it relates only to two of the 11 minors, the ones who did not submit a defense. Each of the two must pay the victim 3 million shekels. (This sum is in addition to the 183,000 shekels in compensation the court awarded the victim in the criminal case.)
Despite the economic incentives, few victims of sexual assault pursue civil suits. According to Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, not only are victims often psychologically exhausted after the criminal case is over, but unlike in criminal cases, court costs in civil suits must be borne by the plaintiff, and are not always justified by the amount of compensation. “From what we see in the field, a good many women feel this is unpleasant, and that’s putting aside the economic consideration. Not every woman can allow herself to pay the court costs,” Sulitzeanu said.
It cannot be said unequivocally that the Tel Aviv District Court ruling is the largest compensation ruling against perpetrators of sexual assault in a civil suit, because some of these rulings remain confidential. However, Roni Aloni-Sadovnik, who represented the complainant, said the verdict was unprecedented.
“There is no doubt that the Tel Aviv District Court is leading the revolution in compensation awards in sexual assault cases. All victims feel that no price can be put on what they went through, and so when the court delivers a ruling of low compensation, they interpret it as another insult, as a lack of appreciation by the courts of how deeply they were harmed.”
Attorney Dikla Tutian-Zayad, an expert in sexual assault cases, said, “In the year 2000, compensation of about 100,000 shekels for serious sexual assault was considered reasonable and proper. In 2005, the sum of 250,000 shekels was unprecedented. There is certainly improvement in recognizing non-financial damage to victims of sexual assault.”
Yael Sherer brought a civil suit years ago against her father, who was convicted of sexually abusing her and sent to prison for three years, of which he served two. “I wanted him to confess,” said Sherer. “That’s not what the trial is for, but that’s what I wanted. His confession was part of the compromise that we reached after four years in which they didn’t present even one witness. I received 750,000 shekels,” she said.
One of the difficulties faced by women bringing civil suits against their attackers is that unlike in the criminal proceedings, where the state brings charges, Sherer says: “To sue the person who hurt you is to fight back. It’s an aggressive act and requires you to know that you are awakening sleeping dogs against you.”
Sherer also documented her experience in a film, “Dirty Laundry.” The film, she says, “allowed me to stop being ashamed and I think that’s the main reason these suits are multiplying now. Besides, money isn’t a dirty word. I had lots of problems, which after I received the money I could solve, from dental work to paying psychologists,” she adds.
But the difficulties of sexual assault victims don’t end with the verdict, no matter how high the damages awarded. “You can frame these verdicts and hang them on the wall in 90 percent of the cases,” says attorney Rotem Aloni-Davidov, who has represented victims of sexual assault for over a decade. “The state does nothing to obtain the money. The woman can go to the Bailiff’s Office and try to start proceedings against the offender, but if there is no money, it won’t help and so many critics of these high awards say they are mainly symbolic.”
So, according to Aloni-Davidov, sometimes it’s better for the victim to reach an out-of-court compromise. “The victim might receive a smaller sum, but at least she’ll get something. I’ve had clients who have had to take out a second mortgage and loans, which the Bailiff’s Office doesn’t require the offender to do, but in a compromise, that is possible.”
Attorney Tutian-Zayad contends the state should be responsible for paying damages to victims of sexual assault, and “invest the millions it does in the rehabilitation of criminals and legal services for criminals. It’s not right to shirk responsibility for the victims as a cheap solution and send them to file a civil suit,” she says.