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Sexual harassment: what does the story of Vanessa Guillan mean to you?

You may have seen the trending of #iamvanessaguillan on social media which again has highlighted the harassment and sexual violence women are at risk of while serving in the military.  Vanessa Guillan was a US army personnel who reported being harassed by a colleague.  She went missing before her remains were found close to her base.  Her suspected killer committed suicide and the family of Vanessa Guillan are still seeking justice for what happened.  During the search for Vanessa Guillan other female service personnel shared their experiences using this hashtag which showed that sexual harassment and violence was not confirmed to the US military and horrific circumstances of Vanessa Guillan’s death.

This gruesome and tragic story does cast a shadow and many service women have been coming forward on social media to discuss their experiences of harassment, assault and rape.  We know from the 2019 Report from Service Complaint Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (SCOAF) that women are overrepresented in the Complaints System, 23% compared to their service strength of 11%.  Further, that 39% of Service Complaints by female personnel concerned bullying, harassment or discrimination.  What the SCOAF report also told us was that 93% of those asked who had experience of bullying, harassment or discrimination in the previous 12 months had chosen not to complain.  Clearly the prevalence of sexual harassment is bigger than being reported.  For more on this, see my previous blog.

What is sexual harassment?

The Advisory, Conciliatory and Arbitration service (ACAS) is a government run organisation that seeks to improve relations between employers and employees.  It defines sexual harassment as “unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature” and provides some helpful guidance on sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • It can happen to men, women and people of any gender or sexual orientation
  • It can be carried out by anyone of the same sex or opposite sex
  • You can experience sexual harassment from anyone you come into contact with because of your job
  • It can still count as sexual harassment even if the person did not mean it to be
  • It can be behaviour such as flirting, or making sexual remarks about someone’s body.  It can include asking questions about someone’s sex life, telling sexually offensive jokes or emailing, texting or messaging sexual content.

As well as the harasser, if the sexual harassment takes places in the course of work, then you may also have a right to hold your employer to account (i.e. the Ministry of Defence).  The MOD have a duty of care to all service personnel and civilian employees; to take all reasonable steps to protect them from sexual harassment.

If you have experienced sexual harassment, what can you do about it?

Initially you may feel you want to confide in friends and family, a trusted colleague or the padre.  But if you want to take things further to try to resolve it, then JSP 763 advises that in the first instance you speak to your Chain in Command.  This may resolve the situation informally but, if it does not satisfy you, then you should make a formal Service Complaint.

Service Complaint

A Service Complaint has to be made within three months of the incident being complained about.  Any complaint made after this time may be rejected unless you can show that there were very good reasons for the delay.  Your complaint should detail everything that has led to you making a complaint and you should also explain any steps you took to resolve it.

Where you have suffered harassment for a protracted period of time from the same individual or group of individuals you can still make a claim about incidents that happened over three months ago so long as you bring your service compliant within three months of the last incident of harassment.

If your complaint is accepted, it will be allocated to an Investigation Officer who will interview you and any respondents to your complaint (i.e. your harasser/s) and other relevant witnesses.

Within your complaint you can seek redress such as an apology, a punishment for the person who has harassed you, training for them and/or compensation, but this is rarely awarded.  Once the investigation is complete, you will be sent the findings and asked to provide further comments.  The individual(s) who you are making a complaint about will be given the same right.  The findings are then sent to a Deciding Officer who will decide whether to uphold any of your complaints and what the appropriate redress will be.  If you are not happy with the outcome, you will be given the chance to appeal.

Your health

The sexual harassment may have affected your mental health and you may want to speak to a doctor to report the symptoms you have and see what support and treatment there is for you.  You should speak to your Medical Officer if you are still serving or your civilian GP if you are no longer serving.

Civil Claim

Experiencing sexual harassment may have led you to questioning whether you want to stay in the forces or you may have already made up your mind to leave, because of the treatment you suffered and/or the failure for it to be properly addressed by those in charge.  Alternatively, you may have been medically discharged.

In these circumstances you may wish to obtain legal advice on whether you can bring a civil claim for the sexual harassment you have experienced and the losses you have suffered as result, such as lost career, earnings, pension and other benefits.

What are the time limits for a civil claim?

Time limits may vary. For claims in negligence these are normally three years from the date you first suffered injury.  For claims under the Protection form harassment Act, these must be brought within six years of the first incident of harassment.

You should take advice form a solicitor as soon as possible about the time limits that would apply in your case.  If you fail to issue a claim in time you may lose your right to compensation.

You should not have to suffer in silence and if you or a loved one has experienced sexual harassment in the military, please contact us confidentially and without charge.

Tom Spearpoint is a senior solicitor in the Military Claims team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.  If you or a loved one have suffered an injury or you are concerned about the treatment you have received, contact Tom free of charge and in confidence on 020 3973 5010 or at  Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Military Claims team will contact you.  Find out more about the Military Claims team.

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