University fails to cover legal costs for year abroad sexual assault victim

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Durham University has faced intense criticism for telling a student, who was raped on her year abroad whilst teaching in a school in Peru, that she would have to cover her own legal costs.

The University’s policy means that people accused of committing a crime whilst studying abroad are entitled to legal assistance. Victims of a crime, however, are not. This means that a man accused of rape would have defence costs covered, even as victims are left without support.

This incident occurred at a school where the woman was volunteering. The attack left the woman covered in bruises. It was reported swiftly and the suspect, a teacher at the school, was arrested.

The male teacher had offered to drive her back to her host family after a night celebrating the end of the student’s placement. He instead took her back to his own house where the assault happened.

In a report in The Times, the victim described “telling him to stop and telling him ‘no’ and not being able to move at all”. She was interviewed by police the following day and denied access to an interpreter. Some days later she learnt that the suspect had been released without charge.

The student’s legal costs for the case totalled around £1,000.

The University, which had arranged the placement along with an NGO, has now severed all ties with the school.

Claire O’Malley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor responsible for the University’s international affairs, said that the student has been given “signposting to sources of counselling”.

She said: “Our travel cover is provided by UM Association Ltd with legal expenses cover provided by Markel. Our travel cover is wide in scope and compares favourably with other commercially available travel covers. Whether the legal expenses cover would apply in a particular situation is always a decision for the legal expenses insurer, rather than the university.”

Speaking to The Tab Durham, Professor O’Malley added: “We were shocked and deeply concerned when the student involved reported this to us. We do all we can to ensure victim-survivors get the right support to report allegations, rebuild their lives, and stay safe and we encourage the student to contact us at any time to discuss further support.

“We are currently reviewing our position on this case and have contacted the student directly to discuss this.”

Durham University reiterated that it provides “full support for students undertaking study abroad placements, before, during and following their period overseas and we have been reviewing our year abroad placements to further enhance the quality of student support”.

Support for anyone affected by sexual assault or sexual violence can be found on the University website, and can access support through the Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre.

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