Civil Remedies
last updated 10 February 2009

Civil relief may be available to victims of sexual assault. In situations where a perpetrator presents a continuing danger to the victim, the victim may be able to obtain—where possible under domestic law—a civil order for protection (OFP). Survivors may also be eligible for certain forms of crime victims compensation, where such compensation schemes are provided for in domestic law.

A sexual assault survivor may also be able to bring a civil suit for damages against a perpetrator. Civil litigation has many disadvantages. Incarceration of defendants will not be an outcome of a civil suit. A defendant may not have the money to pay a judgment obtained in a civil proceeding. A civil proceeding can be a "laborious, time-consuming, frustrating process. The victim may be called upon to recount the victimization a number of times. Confrontation with the perpetrator may be inevitable. Anonymity may not be possible." In addition, in jurisdictions that limit the admissibility of evidence of a victim's past sexual activities or of communications with therapists and counselors, such limits may not apply in civil proceedings. "Virtually every aspect of the victim's life—even that which seems to have not bearing on the case—is fair game in the discovery process. . . . There is also the question of assessing damage. Service providers are engaged in helping victims heal. In the civil process, the attorney is trying to prove how severely and permanently damaged the victim is." From Nancy Biele, Civil Litigation in Sexual Assault Cases, Minnesota Coalition for Sexual Assault.

At the same time, however, civil law remedies may be preferable in some circumstances because they involve a lower burden of proof; in addition, depending on the legal system, a finding of guilt in a criminal trial may be sufficient to establish civil liability. Some of the advantages of civil remedies include:

1. It can empower victims. There can be more control in civil cases; whereas in criminal cases, the victim is only a witness in the case. 2. Recovery of monetary damages for the harm inflicted on victims both validates the victim's experience and reinforces the idea that perpetrators must be accountable for their actions. 3. Civil litigation promotes enhanced safety and security practices because major lawsuits have resulted in more corporate responsibility as a way to lessen liability. 4. High profile civil suits help heighten awareness of sexual assault.

From Nancy Biele, Civil Litigation in Sexual Assault Cases, Minnesota Coalition for Sexual Assault.

OFPs and other civil remedies are discussed in more detail in the section on domestic violence.

Adapted from Susan K. Smith, Civil Remedies for Survivors of Sexual Abuse: An Overview (August 2000).

For a collection of research and reports on civil remedies for sexual assault, click here.

For the 2008 United Nations expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women" including recommendations on civil lawsuits, Section 11, click here.  For the Russian version of the recommendations to the report, click here.