WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 8, 2015) -- The Special Victims' Counsel, or SVC program, designed to help victims of sexual assault, has been expanded.

That, along with several other changes that affect sexual assault policy and related courts-martial procedures, are part of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, signed into law by President Barack Obama, Nov. 25.

The SVC program consists of attorneys who represent victims throughout the investigative and judicial process.

The NDAA expanded both the categories of victims entitled to SVC services and the types of services that SVC provides in five important ways, said Col. Walt Hudson, judge advocate chief, Criminal Law Division, Army Office of the Judge Advocate General.

When SVC was first implemented two years ago, only active-component Service members and their Family members qualified for SVC, he said. Now, Department of Defense civilians may also be eligible for SVC.

Second, SVC attorneys are now authorized to assist victims with issues that arise outside the court-martial process, including filing inspector general and equal opportunity complaints, Freedom of Information Act requests, and congressional requests, Hudson said.

Third, the law codifies current practice for Army investigators, requiring that investigators and trial counsel must provide victims entitled to SVC notice of that right before questioning them or taking statements from them, he said.

Fourth, with the assistance of an SVC, a victim in a sexual assault court-martial now has the right to appeal certain rulings made during pre-trial proceedings that affect a victim's privacy interests, Hudson said.

And fifth, the bill requires the defense secretary to establish baseline training standards for SVCs and to work with the services to provide guiding principles, performance measures and standards, and processes to evaluate the SVC program, he said.

"The SVC program has been successful in assisting and benefiting sexual assault victims as well as commanders," Hudson said, and now it will likely be even more so.

PREVENTIVE MEASURES

In addition to the expansion of victims' rights, the law also mandated changes to sexual assault prevention, Hudson said. The defense secretary and service secretaries have been directed to do three things.

First, they must improve prevention and response to male victims of sexual assault.

Second, they must develop a comprehensive strategy to prevent retaliation against victims and those who intervene to assist the victims.

And third, they must ensure that the commander of each senior ROTC unit as well as all professors of military science, senior military instructors, and civilian employees detailed, assigned, or employed as administrators and instructors of the senior ROTC unit, receive regular sexual assault prevention and response training and education.

Two other changes include extending record-keeping requirements for sexual assault cases to assist victims in later obtaining benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.

The other change involves moving forward the implementation date of the Defense Advisory Committee on Investigation, Prosecution, and Defense of Sexual Assault in the Armed Forces, to Feb. 23, he said. This committee will advise the defense secretary on how well the department is doing in the investigation, prosecution, and defense of allegations of rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault, and other sexual misconduct involving members of the military.