What Are Your Legal Rights?

Criminal Cases

Sexual abuse cases can be handled in both criminal and civil courts. Criminal legal proceedings will concern only the guilt of an alleged offender and their punishment. The government, such as the district attorney’s office, brings criminal cases after an arrest of a perpetrator based on an investigation carried out by a law enforcement agency. Criminal cases can result from a report made by a victim, a family member, or by an individual who is required by law to report suspected abuse (including teachers, social workers, physicians and other health care providers).

Criminal cases must be proved in court “beyond a reasonable doubt.” These types of cases do not ordinarily result in monetary compensation to victims, although some states may provide for restitution (reimbursement of certain costs incurred by victims for medical or psychological treatment and other items). Statutes of limitation may preclude criminal proceedings if significant time has passed since the crime occurred.

California’s Marsy’s Law

In 2008, voters passed an amendment to the California Constitution that expanded the legal rights of crime victims. Of the 17 rights added to what is known as the California Victims’ Bill of Rights, some of the most notable included the right to legal standing, protection from the defendant, notification of all court proceedings, and restitution. The legislation also changed the process of releasing offenders from prison and gave administrative boards greater power to deny inmates parole. Perhaps the most distinguishing change made by Marsy’s Law was the victim’s right to restitution. Under the act, victims are given the right, without exception, to restitution from convicted offenders in every case in which a victim suffered loss. Other expansions allowed victims the rights to:

  • Prevent the release of confidential information
  • Refuse to be interviewed or provide pretrial testimony on behalf of the defendant
  • Protection from harm from offenders
  • The return of property no longer needed as evidence
  • Have courts consider a victim’s safety when setting bail for offenders
  • The right to safe schools at all educational levels

Civil Lawsuits

Perpetrators of sexual abuse may be sued by survivors for damages in civil courts in California and most other states. Civil cases may be brought independently from criminal proceedings. The right of a survivor to recover damages in a civil case does not depend on the arrest or conviction of the perpetrator in criminal court. In addition, the standard of proof in a civil case is less strict than in a criminal case.

A civil litigant need only prove his or her case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” Also, statutes of limitation in civil sexual abuse matters may be longer than in criminal cases. Compensatory damages available in civil sexual abuse cases may include past and future medical expenses and lost wages, as well as damages for pain and suffering. Punitive damages may also be available.

Perhaps most important, in civil cases corporations and other businesses, churches, service organizations (e.g., Boy Scouts), governmental agencies (e.g., public schools, social services, the military) and other entities and institutions may be sued and held civilly liable in California and other states for their negligence in failing to detect, report or prevent sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse lawsuits can be complicated and legally challenging, especially when they involve large institutions that can afford to aggressively defend themselves. By working with attorneys experienced in litigating sexual abuse claims, you can more easily navigate through the legal process, achieve justice and move toward a more positive future.

To learn more read our frequently asked questions page.


There is no doubt that sexual abuse cases are matters of intense emotional conflict and that speaking out can be incredibly difficult. Many abuse survivors are understandably reluctant to bring civil actions for fear that their names will be made public in pleadings and other court documents. Fortunately, in California and many other states, protections are provided to minimize or eliminate public dissemination of the identity of a plaintiff. Both children and adult survivors typically bring civil lawsuits anonymously; the courts do not require their real names to be used in publically available court documents. Again, retaining a lawyer with specific experience in handling sexual abuse cases will help ensure that your rights and your privacy are aggressively guarded.

Learn More About Your Rights

Understanding your legal rights is the first step toward obtaining justice and the compensation that you deserve. We encourages abuse survivors and families to meet with an experienced member of our legal team for a free and confidential case evaluation to learn more about your legal rights and how our firm can protect them. If you want to work with experienced and passionate California sexual abuse attorneys, you need The Senators Firm, LLP. Contact our firm today.