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What You Need to Know About Hiring a Sexual Assault Lawyer

December 15, 2021
Teresa Mettela

NOTE: This is not legal advice and we are not your attorneys. Nothing in this blog or article should be considered legal advice. You should not act or rely on the basis of information on this site without seeking the advice of an attorney.

Victims of sexual assault often need time – days, weeks, or even years – to recognize and process that they were sexually assaulted. 

Sexual assault is never a victim’s fault. 

However, perpetrators of sexual assault often manipulate victims into thinking that they are to blame for being in this situation; as a result, many victims are afraid to report the crime for a long time or ever. They may also not want to report to the criminal justice system for fear of retaliation or not believing in the system. 

Sexual assault victims cannot be expected or pressured to report a sexual assault crime. Rather, we should support victims of sexual assault and provide them with resources and comfort when they are ready to act. 

Your options after a sexual assault experience 

  • Have a sexual assault forensic exam performed: Also known as a rape kit, a sexual assault forensic exam is performed at a hospital where they exam your body, clothes, and other personal belongings to collect DNA and other evidence that can be used in a criminal investigation, if you ever choose to press charges (file a police report). You can have an advocate alongside you for the process and are in complete control of the experience. You can learn more about this experience here

  • Filing a police report: If you file a police report, the police officer will start a report in which they will ask for personal information about you as well as information about the occurrence. The officer may ask you several things, including the name, address, and physical description of the suspect if you know the person. It is not uncommon that they will ask you to provide a statement about what happened. While it’s not guaranteed that the police will investigate, there will be a papertrail of this behavior. At the point where they can make an arrest, a district attorney (DA) will be appointed to you. 

  • Filing an order of protection: If you have been the victim of sexual assault crime with someone you are/were know, whether a family member, someone in the community, or an intimate partner, you may be eligible to file for an order of protection — also known as a restraining order.An order of protectionr is an official document that is signed by a judge who can order the offender to have no contact with you, leave your home, stay away from you or your workplace, and may provide other kinds of protection you may need. 

  • Civil suit: Some survivors of sexual violence may choose to file a civil lawsuit for damages against perpetrator of sexual violence. A civil suit is unlike a criminal investigation because a civil suit is a private legal action that you must initiate. Civil actions generally require a lower standard of proof (preponderance of the evidence) than criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt). A survivor of sexual assault may choose to seek a civil suit for compensatory damages and possibly punitive damages. Civil suits may take years to resolve, and there is no guarantee you will win. However, some survivors may prefer civil suits over a criminal trial.

Know that you don’t have to choose any of these options — and you don’t have to do any of them immediately. You can choose to focus on your own healing.

How Is a Sexual Abuse Civil Suit Different Than a Criminal Case? 

A criminal case is put into motion when a crime has been committed and reported to authorities. A criminal case is not the victim versus the offender — it is the state versus the offender. This means that while a victim can be consulted during the process, and may have to testify, it can feel like the victim isn’t in complete control. 

If the proceeding investigation of the case leads to an arrest, then the suspect is formally charged. To obtain this conviction, a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did commit the crime. If the defendant is found guilty of the crime, they will then be punished through incarceration, probation, and/or fines. 

A civil suit is filed on behalf of the survivor in civil court and the result is determined based on the evidence provided in court. In other words, the court decides whether the abuse was more likely to have occurred than not. If the court determines that the abuse happened, the court then looks at the damages sought by the plaintiff and decides whether the award is fair. A civil suit does not determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence, but rather whether the defendant is legally liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.

Can a civil case be brought against the defendant if they were found innocent in criminal court or if no criminal case was filed?  

There are instances in which criminal and civil cases overlap, but the most important distinction between the two is often directly tied to the standard of proof. The “beyond a reasonable doubt,” standard for criminal cases is much higher and harder to prove than the “by a preponderance of the evidence,” or “clear and convincing evidence,” standards in civil cases. If there is enough evidence for a criminal case to even be brought forth, then it is likely that a defendant will be found liable in a civil case, since the standard is lower. However, please note that a criminal case will not have a direct impact on the outcome of a civil case; it can only assist with helping to prove liability.

How long do you have to file a sexual assault claim?

Since many sexual assault survivors choose not to take immediate action, a common question they ask is, “How long do I have to file a sexual assault claim?” Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward answer. It is not uncommon for survivors to wait years to file a claim; they might feel they can heal without filing a claim, or they may want to put the incident behind them without taking legal action. In many cases, politicians, celebrities, and other famous figures have been exposed for sexual assault years after it took place, as survivors choose to act long after the assault. As a result, laws have been put in place regarding how long after a sexual assault claim can be filed; these are called statutes of limitations, and they differ by state.

A statute of limitations imposes a time limit on when a person can file legal claims. For example, in New York, employees who are pursuing defamation lawsuits must file their documents within one year of the defamatory act. Statutes of limitations are important because they ensure that a plaintiff files his or her claim within a timely manner, which safeguards that witness memories are reliable, and evidence may still be available.

If you need information on how long you have to file a sexual assault claim according to your state’s statute of limitations, the best way to obtain this information is by contacting a sexual assault attorney. These lawyers are familiar with the laws on sexual assault and can explain them to you and help you understand your legal options.

When to seek out a sexual assault lawyer

Sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.. Sexual assault lawyers will help you figure out what the next best steps are for you and how to go about each one.  You do not need to hire a lawyer for criminal court proceedings as a District Attorney will be appointed to you — although you may want one for emotional support and to hold them accountable. Most of the time, you hire a sexual assault lawyer to represent you in civil suit proceedings.

What kind of lawyer do I need for a sexual assault case?

Sexual abuse cases are incredibly complex and require great understanding of liability issues and psychological damages that are not present in personal injury cases. Fortunately, there are lawyers who specialize in representing victims of sexual abuse.

Victims of sexual assault oftentimes harbor intense emotion and sensitive memories. Sexual assault lawyers are there to comfort the victim as well as the victim’s family during this process. It is important to choose a sexual assault or abuse attorney who possesses the legal knowledge, experience, and commitment needed in a sexual offense case.

The process for hiring a sexual assault lawyer

Hiring a sexual assault lawyer can be intimidating if you are not prepared with the proper questions or guidance. 

First — every lawyer you talk to should offer a free consultation. If they want you to pay for the initial conversation, you should likely look elsewhere. 

When choosing a sexual assault lawyer, always conduct interviews before settling on one person. Interviews will help you understand the lawyer’s background, experience, areas of expertise, and likely outcome of your case. At the same time, the interviews allow you to share information about yourself and your case. Make sure to note if your lawyer is a good listener. Additionally, it is helpful to hire a lawyer that has handled cases that are similar to yours. A lawyer’s reputation and commitment to your case is crucial. Lastly, be sure to discuss whether the lawyer’s fee is reasonable for you and works to your benefit.  

Questions to ask a sexual assault lawyer before paying them

How long have you been a lawyer?

This is the first question you want to ask a sexual assault lawyer. It is to determine if the person representing you is experienced and skilled at their job. 

How often do you take cases to trial?

This question will help you determine how willing your criminal defense attorney is to go to trial. Some will use a plea deal just to make the process easy when really you could get a better legal outcome by going to trial. The vast majority of criminal defense cases do not go to trial. But you do want a lawyer willing to take yours to trial if appropriate.

Will you be doing my casework?

Some larger law firms pass off all, most, or some of your case’s work to less experienced junior attorneys. In some cases, junior attorneys even end up representing you at court. You have to be careful when you talk to that senior attorney. At small firms, or with individual lawyers, the lawyer you talk with does the work.

How do you charge for your time?

Make sure you trust the fee structure various lawyers charge. And never go with the cheapest lawyer just because they’re inexpensive. Generally, they charge low rates and make their profit on case volume. That makes them go through each case fast. And that means they might settle as quickly as possible without filing motions or going to trial and getting you a better legal outcome.

Can you predict the outcome of my case?

Any lawyer that says they can or that they’ll promise a certain outcome is telling you what you want to hear to get your business. A lawyer that talks about all possible legal outcomes and does not make promises has your best interests at heart.

How much does a sexual assault lawyer cost?

In sexual assault cases, attorney’s fees vary and so do potential costs and expenses, depending on the case. Some attorneys may charge a flat fee for the entire case, others may charge hourly, or break the case down phase by phase, charging for each individual phase. One other option is contingency — or when they take a percentage of the money you receive for damages. This is likely not a good option for sexual assault cases.

It is important to take payment plans into consideration when deciding on a criminal defense attorney — be sure to choose a plan that works for you. 

Charging an hourly rate is common in the practice of law, especially for civil attorneys. 

Some attorneys will charge flat fees for each phase in the case. For example, the attorney may break the case down into two or more phases, the most common is pretrial and trial phase. In doing so, the client will pay depending on whether or not they want to go to trial. A disadvantage to this method is that sometimes this type of fee agreement will discourage a client to go to trial when trial is the only option to get the outcome the client desires.

In general, sexual assault cases can cost anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What happens next?

After you decide to hire a sexual assault lawyer, they will meet with you, potentially a few times, to gather all of the facts on the case. 

They will then file the initial suit against the defendant (the offender) and the offender will be notified. 

You should be well aware that civil suits are a public record that can be found online. It is hard to hide your identity when you file, although you may be able to file one as a “Jane / John Doe”. 

The offender may also retaliate or strike out in some bad manner once they’ve realized you filed a civil suit against them. Always put your safety first and if you’re in immediate danger, call 911. 

If you need to talk with someone about your case that isn’t your lawyer, you can also call RAINN - the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network who can provide advice and provide access to additoinal resoures. 

Whatever way you choose to heal from the experience, know that you are not alone. 

We hear you. We see you. We believe you. 

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