Victims of rape will be able to seek forensic testing before involving the police under new legislation published by the Scottish Government.

Rape Crisis Scotland has welcomed the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) Scotland bill, which aims to address a range of problems identified by the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Dr Catherine Calderwood.

She headed up a government task force on victims of rape and sexual assault, set up following a critical report by the police inspectorate HMICS. The group called for changes to improve the response to victims of sexual crime and to ensure they do not fall through gaps between the health and justice services.

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Under the new law, people who have been the victim of a rape or sexual assault will be able to self-refer for forensic testing. This means that someone too upset or traumatised or fearful to engage with police and criminal justice services in the immediate aftermath of a crime can deal with a nurse or doctor, ensuring potentially vital evidence will be preserved should they decide to report it to police at a later date.

Sandy Brindley, director of Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS) said the bill would bring Scotland into line with what is already best practice in many countries, including England. “At present a victim is forced to decide whether or not to report it to the police straight away. If they don’t, that evidence can be lost forever,” she said.

But it is common for survivors of a sexual attack to feel too traumatised or wary to engage with the legal process at first, she added. “If two weeks later they feel strong enough to report it the evidence is gone.”

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said better access to healthcare services for victims of rape and sexual assault was a vital to improving the support on offer.

“By ensuring the choice to self-refer is available consistently across Scotland, we hope that people who might currently be reluctant to make a police report are encouraged to access appropriate NHS services and get the support they need at a time of significant trauma,” she said.

The bill includes a number of other measures designed to ensure health services are more responsive to the needs of victims of sexual crime and to address concerns raised by charities supporting them.

As well as clear legal responsibilities for health boards to provide direct access to forensic medical services it will establish clear rights for victims to know what will happen with evidence taken from them.

The bill will allow victims to ask to be examined by a male or female medical professional for the first time. It also clarifies a duty for health boards to respond to survivors of sexual crime by ensuring they receive coordinated follow up care, with referrals for the morning after pill if necessary, sexual health testing and psychological support.

Ms Brindley added: “Sexual crimes are fundamentally abuses of power and about taking someone’s control – which is why it is so important and encouraging that this bill recognises and works to counter this by making sure that survivors are in control of procedures and processes around their evidence and property.

“An important element of this is moving to using nurses as forensic examiners. This is a key development, and one which could make a huge difference.”

This refers to a paired announcement that £200,000 is being made available to develop the role of nurse sexual offence examiners, enabling qualified and experienced nurses to undertake forensic medical examinations of victims of sexual crime and give evidence in court. At present this can only be done by doctors.

Eileen McKenna, Associate Director for Professional Practice at the Royal College of Nursing Scotland welcomed the plan. She said: “Timely access to suitably qualified, experienced and skilled professionals should be a right for anyone who has suffered rape or sexual assault.

“Developing the role of nurse sexual offence examiners to undertake forensic medical examinations will improve access and make a real difference in providing the right care, at the right time.”

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has had close involvement in the proposals to develop the nurse examiner workforce. Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC said: “Scottish prosecutors take crimes of rape and sexual offences extremely seriously. COPFS is committed to contributing to improvement of the criminal justice system.

“I welcome the initiative to develop the nurse Sexual Offence Examiner role, which could enhance the service available to complainers. It will allow us to monitor and evaluate the scheme and seek to establish the role’s viability within the criminal justice system.”