Story by Capt. Josh Bell, USAG, Fort Stewart Soldier and Family Legal Services

Often Criminal Investigation Division, sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates ask alleged victims of an alleged sexual offense if they desire the services of a special victim's counsel, the victim does not understand the role the SVC plays in the process. The same issues arise for commanders of Soldier-victims when trying to provide options to that Soldier, or just do not know what an SVC is.

This article provides an overview of the SVC program, to include the mission and vision, roles and responsibilities, and other tools that will aid commanders and victims of sexual offenses in understanding their right to have an SVC.

The SVC program was directed on Aug. 13, 2013, by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. SECDEF specifically wanted all services to establish a program, " suited for that service that provides legal advice and representation to the victim throughout the justice process." The Army SVC program was then established in October 2013.

The mission and vision of the SVC program is entirely client-based; meaning SVCs are to provide competent and zealous representation of all clients, with their interests and rights being second to no one. The first way SVCs provide such representation is by empowering victims by fostering victims' understanding of the military justice and administrative processes. Without a full understanding of the military justice and administrative process, victims cannot be fully informed on their rights.

SVCs advocate for victims' rights. While found in Article 6b of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the rights include: the right to be protected from accused; the right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice; the right not to be excluded from certain proceedings (Article 32, motions, trial); the right to be heard at proceedings; a reasonable right to confer with prosecution - which should be coordinated through their SVC; the right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay; and the right to be treated with fairness and with respect for dignity and privacy.

An SVC may provide services including legal consultation regarding numerous areas, to include criminal liability of an accused, consultation involving victims' rights and benefits, legal assistance matters such as powers of attorney and wills, consultation on the military justice and administrative system and consultation regarding the roles of the SARC, victim advocate, Victim Witness Assistance Program, and victim witness liaison.

Communications between SVCs and victims are confidential and privileged due to the attorney-client relationship established. This gives victims not only a sense of comfort, but also assists in building rapport between the SVC and victim.

Commanders are able to utilize their servicing military justice advisor, or even the SVCs located on the installation, to assist in understanding the SVC program. More importantly, as a primary source, the commander's legal handbook outlines the SVC program, who is eligible for an SVC, and what an SVC does.

SARCs, victim advocates and CID should interact with the servicing SVC early and often; and reach out to them to get a clear understanding of how to guide victims who are entitled to SVC services, and what an SVC does. Couching SVCs in the term of "counsel" or "counselor" can be misleading and confusing to victims; especially when victims are instructed on the different counselors available to them - medical, behavioral health, etc. All victims should be informed that SVCs are licensed attorneys who will advocate for their express interests and rights. SVCs are not prosecutors or defense counsel, and that should be described accurately to victims.

The SVC program has come so far in the five-years of its existence. Commanders and victims need to be fully informed of their right to have an SVC in cases involving sexual offenses. Commanders and victims can utilize this overview as a tool to not just understand the program and what an SVC provides, but also to provide further protections to victims of sexual offenses in the future, providing safety and avoiding unnecessary issues for all parties to the process.