Police and Crime Commissioner Joy Allen has announced the launch of a new post to support victims of sexual violence during the early stages of a police investigation.

As the country marks Sexual Violence Awareness Week 2024, the County Durham and Darlington PCC confirmed plans to appoint an Engagement Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA) to work within the Darlington and County Durham Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre’s (RSACC) ISVA team.

The new role is part of an 18-month project focused on building closer working relationships between police and ISVAs to improve the experience of victims of sexual violence through the criminal justice system.

It follows Durham Constabulary’s role as a ‘pathfinder force’ in the Home Office’s Operation Soteria pilot which brings together police forces and prosecutors with academics to better understand a suspect’s behaviour and to improve victim experiences within the criminal justice system.

The Operation Soteria Year One Report highlighted the critical role of ISVAs in the victims’ experience of the criminal justice system and the importance of strengthening police and ISVA relationships.

Commissioner Allen said: “Victims of crime must remain at the core of our criminal justice system. We have already made significant progress in transforming the way rape and sexual assault investigations are handled but there is more to be achieved.

“This new role will enhance our existing ISVA services by increasing understanding around the impact of sexual violence to build stronger cases and facilitate better decision-making to deliver effective justice for victims.

“The force continues to pioneer new approaches to deliver high-quality support to victims of sexual violence. This new position will enable us to further adapt to build confidence among victims and meet their needs in the way they want while bringing more perpetrators before the courts to be held to account for their crimes.”

RSACC is commissioned by the PCC to deliver the ISVA service for the county. The service currently has eight ISVAs including four specialist posts and supports more than 400 victims a year.

Jamie Allinson, ISVA Manager, said: “As a specialist sexual violence service, we are pleased to be involved in the development of this important role which will promote the benefit of ISVAs and advance partnership working with Durham Constabulary. We are hopeful that this will lead to positive outcomes for victims and survivors of sexual violence who can find the criminal justice process overwhelming.”

ISVAs are specially trained advocates who provide crucial support throughout the survivor’s journey through the criminal justice process. They work with individuals who have experienced rape and sexual assault and provide impartial information about the options available to them including pre-trial therapy and sexual violence counselling and help from bespoke health services.

The Operation Soteria Engagement ISVA would be available to the police to help support early interactions with victims. They would also help agree communication contracts with victims, work from safeguarding hubs to enable officers to ask questions and share information and act as a single point of contact on urgent operational issues. They would also support the induction of new officers, offering a meeting to explain the role of the ISVA service and answer questions.

It is hoped having a dedicated ISVA available to support victims in the initial stages of an enquiry will enhance the police’s understanding and trust in the ISVA role and ensure any issues are addressed quickly. It will also help to improve understanding within the wider ISVA team of the requirements and pressure the police face when supporting victims.

The Operation Soteria Engagement ISVA would work with victims on a short-term basis of between two and four weeks before handling over to another member of the ISVA team to support them through the remainder of their justice journey. They will also be responsible for a small caseload of long-term clients throughout the pilot to increase the capacity of the ISVA service.

Rebekah Lax, Operation Soteria Engagement ISVA Lead, commented: “Having worked as an ISVA, I know from first-hand the challenges faced by sexual violence survivors when navigating the criminal justice system.  It can be both frightening and daunting. However, I believe that my new role as County Durham’s Engagement ISVA Lead, will help to improve their experiences and hopefully all outcomes for survivors of sexual violence.”

Durham Constabulary has one of the highest charging rates for rape investigations in England and Wales and is playing a critical role in developing future reform.

In the first year of the Operation Soteria pilot, Durham saw the number of rape cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) more than double. The force also saw a reduction in the average days taken for a charge outcome to be assigned.

Detective Superintendent Nicola Lawrence, from Durham Constabulary, said: “Offences involving sexual violence can have a truly devastating and long-lasting impact on victims and survivors.

“We want them to have the trust and confidence to come forward and report these offences, knowing that they will be listened to and supported throughout their journey through the criminal justice process.

“We are fully committed to delivering the justice that survivors deserve and are always looking for ways to improve the service we offer. We hope the introduction of the Operation Soteria Engagement ISVA will do just that, helping us to build stronger cases and deliver effective justice for victims.”

The PCC has prioritised victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence under the Safer People theme of her Police and Crime Plan, pledging to deliver high quality support for victims of rape and sexual violence and their families where appropriate.

She also vowed to deliver on the recommendations included in the national End to End Rape Review.