VICTIMS of rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, harassment, stalking, human trafficking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation now have access to free legal advice after a new national centre for women’s rights opened its doors.

The Scottish Women’s Rights Centre (SWRC) has been set up by Rape Crisis Scotland, the University of Strathclyde and the Legal Services Agency, with the helpline to be staffed by volunteers from the university’s law clinic.

The Scottish Government, through the Legal Aid Board, will also pay for a solicitor to represent vulnerable women, helping them to pursue legal action against their perpetrators and give advice on criminal injuries compensation.

Campaigners said the Glasgow-based centre, which will operate a weekly helpline, will make a “significant difference” to the lives of hundreds of affected women.

The SWRC also plans to develop a network of pro-bono solicitors to offer drop-in services in rape crisis centres across Scotland. Those working for the centre also hope to impact on policy making, awareness and research.

Centre co-ordinator Katy Mathieson is expecting a flood of enquiries to follow next week.

She said: “The free helpline is only running once a week at the moment but we are looking to extend service provision as fast as we can.

“It is about providing legal information and advice.

“Rape Crisis Scotland has a national helpline open every night between 6pm and midnight from a freephone number which provides free and confidential support and information to survivors of sexual violence, for friends, relatives and workers which is open to male survivors as well.

“We are also looking to establish drop-ins. We are funded by the Scottish Government through the Legal Aid Board to employ a full-time solicitor who will be able to provide representation for some women who contact the service. We are currently recruiting for that post.

“We want to have an impact on policy, awareness and research. We are overseen by an advisory group who have many different specialisms in legal matters, violence against women and human rights and how we can take this issue forward.”

Community Safety Minister Paul Wheelhouse, who launched the new £215,000 service, said tackling domestic abuse and sexual violence was one of his top priorities.

He said: “Tackling the scourge of domestic abuse and sexual violence is a huge priority for the Scottish Government.

“The helpline being introduced, backed by £215,000 of Scottish Government funding and administered by the Scottish Legal Aid Board will provide vital access to advice and high quality legal assistance for those affected by these horrendous crimes.”

Rape Crisis Scotland spokeswoman Sandy Brindley said: “Women in Scotland who have experienced rape, domestic abuse or any other form of violence against women need access to free, specialist legal advice and support.

“This could be to help make them aware of their rights to protective orders in cases of domestic abuse and/or stalking, advice on housing and welfare issues, or responding to queries about their role as a witness following the report of a rape or sexual assault.”

SWRC also receives some funding from Foundation Scotland.

The new Scottish Women’s Rights Centre helpline – 08088 010 789 – will run every Wednesday afternoon from 1.30pm to 4.30pm.

Stalking victim praises women’s help centre

STALKING victim Ann Moulds, who suffered two years of hell at the hands of her tormentor, welcomed the new women’s rights centre, claiming it would change women’s lives.

She said that if the legal advice helpline had been available during her ordeal it could have changed everything and opened the doors to support and help which she felt were not available to her at the time.

In March 2009, Ann launched Action Scotland Against Stalking after her stalker Alex Reid, from Prestwick, South Ayrshire, was put on probation for three years when he admitted a breach of the peace charge.

She won a battle to get a change in the law after describing her ordeal to Holyrood’s Justice Committee in March 2010, calling for stalking to be recognised as a crime in its own right instead of being classed as breach of the peace.

Ann was forced to move 80 miles away after Reid walked free and lost her business, home, family and friends.

She said: “The fact that this new service is in existence tells me that this is being taken seriously. It is absolutely wonderful and will be a lifeline for many women.

“If I had had somewhere like this to go it could have changed my life. It could have been a very different story altogether. I was in no man’s land and there was nobody out there to help me because no-one seemed to know how to handle stalking cases.

“What a difference it would have made to me if the service had been there when I needed it.

“It would have validated my experience. Just to have a service where someone can say ‘we understand, this is what we can help you with’ and have all the resources there to give the right type of advice. What a relief that would have been.”