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Civil and Criminal justice systems for victims of abuse.

View profile for Grace Monteith
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Many victims who are able to discuss their experiences of sexual abuse enter into the criminal process without the knowledge that they are also entitled to make a civil claim for their physical and psychological injuries. For other victims, a civil claim is not their first choice as they seek to bring the assailant to justice through the criminal justice system.

This article looks at the benefits of each system  to assess whether they are each able to provide a sufficient outcome for the victim.

The Intention

The criminal process is designed to punish those found guilty of carrying out acts of sexual abuse. Although the criminal court may hear about the victim by way of a Victim Impact Statement, and compensation orders may be made, the criminal process does not have as its primary focus the on going needs of the victim.

The civil claims procedure, on the other hand, aims to compensate the victim for their physical and psychological injuries, with a view to assisting them in beginning their road to recovery. Furthermore, it allows for the outcome to be tailored to the individual’s requirements for treatment and support.

The Burden of Proof.

During the criminal process, the prosecution must indicate ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, that is to say, that there is no other explanation that can be derived from the facts, that the Defendant committed the crime. This is the standard of proof applied by Jurors across the English Justice System although this standard can be quite difficult to satisfy as it brings with it a requirement for all evidence to eliminate any doubt within the minds of the Jurors.  

In a civil claim, the ‘balance of probabilities’ is the standard of proof to be satisfied by the Claimant. This means that it is more likely than not that an action occurred and that that action caused an injury to the Claimant. Evidence which might fail to meet the criminal burden of proof may be sufficient to meet the civil burden of proof. This means that even where the criminal justice system is not able to provide the desired outcome, victims may be able to access an alternative means for justice.

The outcome.

Victims of abuse may find that  the conviction and sentencing of an assailant brings peace of mind and reassurance that their experiences have been acknowledged. Sadly, victims do not always find the criminal process to be therapeutic. Although the police are highly skilled at taking evidence sensitively, and Courts make extensive use of video evidence, some victims find the process traumatic. Where a trial results in an acquittal, victims may feel that they have not been believed. Some victims feel a sense of vindication following conviction and sentencing but may then experience distress and anxiety when they become aware that the assailant is due for release.

Where a civil claim is successful, the victim may recover a substantial award of compensation. Although it is only occasionally that this award will be paid directly by the assailant, the funds can help the victim to access the services required to begin the recovery process. Victims of abuse may benefit from extensive counselling programmes which may be expensive and difficult to access through the NHS.

Pursuing a civil claim for compensation.

A civil claim can be made against an individual or an institution. Where the identity of the perpetrator is unknown or they are unable to pay compensation, claims can be made to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Awards made by civil courts can include an element for aggravated damages. CICA awards are made in accordance with a tariff but can include other losses.


Neither system is able to provide a complete package to a victim of abuse. Those who seek to bring an assailant to justice may need to pursue the criminal route. Those seeking support for themselves may need to follow the civil justice system or the provisions of the CICA.

The combined application of both systems enables the victim to access justice by way of a criminal sentence and receive appropriate guidance and support to obtain compensation and treatment for their injuries.

It is important that victims are aware that a criminal conviction is not required in order to bring a successful civil claim. However a conviction against an assailant may be very effective in assisting a victim to secure a subsequent civil award. The CICA also require applicants to have reported assaults to the police or other relevant authority, and to assist in any subsequent investigation or action.

It is clear that victims need support, advice and assistance from those involved in both the criminal and civil justice systems to ensure that their needs are met.