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Blurry hospital corridor

The scandal of sexual abuse in NHS Hospitals: an urgent call for action

Leigh Day solicitors Alison Millar and Catriona Rubens spoke to the Guardian newspaper about its recent report on sexual assaults in hospitals, and how the Guardian’s findings reflect the experiences of their clients who were sexually abused in healthcare settings.

Posted on 23 May 2023

Following an in-depth investigation, the Guardian and the British Medical Journal have today published their report into the scandal of sexual abuse in NHS hospitals over the past five years.

The data makes eye-watering reading:

  • More than 200 NHS trusts in England recorded 35,000 incidents of sexual violence and misconduct between 2017 and 2022.
  • 37 police forces recorded almost 12,000 sexual crimes allegedly committed on NHS premises (almost all hospitals) between 2017 and 2022. This includes almost 4,800 sexual assaults and more than 2,800 rapes.
  • Only eight per cent of sexual offences committed on NHS premises, such as hospitals and mental health units, result in charges or a court summons.
  • Only 17 of 200 trusts in England have a dedicated sexual safety policy.
    This data reflects our strong concern that there is much work to be done within the NHS to eliminate sexual abuse in hospitals.

Patients who are sexually abused in the NHS face an uphill battle to achieve justice, against a backdrop of overlapping investigation processes that can last years. This can include criminal investigations – which often do not result in charges – or regulatory processes before the General Medical Council or the Nursing and Midwifery Council. The Trust may conduct its own safeguarding investigation, or look to take disciplinary action if the perpetrator was a member of staff.

There is a real risk that the victim’s experience and voice can become lost within a maze of confusing, and sometimes contradictory, proceedings.

The lack of clear policies and procedures for dealing with reports of sexual harm across the NHS does nothing to assist patients to take the difficult step of disclosing a traumatic incident of sexual abuse.

Patient victims of sexual assaults in the NHS may also struggle to understand what happened to them and come to terms with the fact they were subjected to a sexual assault. This is particularly the case where the sexual assault occurs under the “guise” of a legitimate medical procedure.

In some cases, delays by NHS Trusts to take statements from victims also contributes to delays in victims obtaining justice.

We fear that, because of barriers to reporting, the true number of sexual assaults in hospitals in England & Wales may be even higher than the Guardian’s data.

For patients, the impact of being sexually assaulted in hospital cannot be understated. Our clients report developing a range of psychological effects, from post-traumatic stress symptoms to anxiety and depression. Many of our clients struggle to trust healthcare professionals again. Some of our clients have put off appointments because they cannot bear the thought of having to undergo a medical examination or be physically touched by a healthcare professional again.

It is likely that a patient victim will encounter someone with a similar “profile” to their abuser in the future – a doctor, nurse, healthcare assistant, physiotherapist etc – unless they completely avoid any further contact with healthcare services. Sadly, this has been how some of our clients have coped.

We know that the current system of scrutiny and safeguarding of staff and patients in NHS hospitals is failing. Many of our clients approach us as civil lawyers to obtain accountability in the absence of that accountability having been provided by the police, the regulator, or the NHS Trust.

We consider that the NHS should:

  1. Produce model guidelines for Trust sexual harm investigations and policies;
  2. Ensure that there is sufficient funding for a sexual violence safeguarding lead in each Trust who has overall responsibility for the monitoring and implementation of the sexual harm prevention policies and investigation procedure
  3. Work with the police and the regulators to agree a published framework for dealing with overlapping investigations that minimises the harm to the victim;
  4. Commit to centrally gathering data on sexual assaults that occur in hospital premises, or in connection with hospital services;
  5. The Department for Health & Social Care should make a public statement of commitment to stamping out sexual abuse and assault in the NHS.

If you have been affected by sexual abuse in hospital or another healthcare setting, we would be happy to speak to you confidentially: Contact the abuse and exploitation team 


Cat Rubens
Abuse claims Human rights

Catriona Rubens

Catriona Rubens is a senior associate solicitor in the abuse team.

Alison Millar
Abuse claims Human rights

Alison Millar

Alison Millar works in the human rights department at Leigh Day, where she is the head of abuse claims

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