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New approach to sensitive issue

News

Cite as: (2007) 81(7) LIJ, p. 20


A new specialist unit is part of a wide range of reforms to assist sexual assault victims as they move through the justice system.

Sexual assault victims will benefit from the implementation of Australia’s first integrated specialist sex offences unit.

The unit, which is located within the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions, aims to minimise the stress and trauma victims experience as they proceed through the courts.

Director of Public Prosecutions Paul Coghlan QC said the unit’s creation represented a substantive change in the way sex offences would be prosecuted in Victoria.

“While we cannot take away the pain of victims, we can ensure they get more appropriate support and they are treated with sensitivity and respect,” he said.

“I hope it will make victims more confident to come forward and report sex offences to police.”

The unit was established after the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) identified major concerns about the criminal justice response to sexual assault, including low reporting, prosecution and conviction rates and a widely held view that the system is not always fair to those who have been sexually assaulted.

In its landmark 2004 Sexual Offences report, the VLRC recommended sweeping changes to the way the justice system treats sexual assault victims.

It mapped out 201 recommendations for legislative reform and changes to police and court procedures.

The new unit is headed by Senior Crown Prosecutor Michele Williams SC. Other members include Crown prosecutor Daryl Brown and senior solicitors Jack Vandersteen and Gary Ching.

The team of about 30 is also made up of advocates and administrative support staff.

Ms Williams said unlike in the past, the Crown prosecutors will be co-located with the solicitors to build a strong team approach.

Staff will have specialist training that takes into account the unique features of sexual assault, including the fact victims are often women and children and many victims know the accused and are understandably reluctant to report offences or to give evidence.

Mr Coghlan said the unit builds on experiences in Canada and South Africa which found having specialist prosecutors who were well prepared and proactive helped make the criminal justice system function smoothly and ensured victims were treated with more sensitivity.

It has been funded with $2.7 million from a $34.2 million package of sexual assault initiatives allocated last year by the state government.

State Attorney-General Rob Hulls said the specialist unit was the latest in a series of reforms to help change the culture not only across the criminal justice system but the community in general regarding sexual assault.

“Changes in sexual assault law, policing and prosecution practices need to be reinforced by attitudinal change in the community,” he said.

“The formation of this unit makes Victoria a national leader in the prosecution of sexual assault offences. No other state or territory has such a comprehensive specialist approach.”

The unit will also provide training, guidelines and feedback to barristers to ensure a more consistent approach to sex offences across the state.

Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA) Forum convenor Judy Flanagan said many victims or survivors of sexual assault who had been through the court system had experienced further trauma and abuse as a result.

“Having a specialist sex offences unit with personnel who are well versed in the law and procedure and who have some interest in ensuring victims and survivors get a better go in court is a positive thing,” she said.

“Hopefully it will lead to better outcomes in terms of convictions and encouraging more victims and survivors to report offences to police and to be keen to pursue a legal process.”

She said CASA was keen to work with the new unit to ensure the perspectives of victims and survivors of sexual assault were better understood.

Law Institute of Victoria CEO Mike Brett Young said the move should provide a process that makes it easier for victims to deal with the trauma associated with sex crimes.

“It may also lead to the public being better informed about the help resources available,” he said.

Australian Football League (AFL) chief executive Andrew Demetriou, who spoke at the unit’s launch, said the AFL wanted to work with the unit not only to rid football of sexual assaults and the vilification of women, but to help change the prevailing culture in the community.

He said the AFL shared the unit’s aim of improving the way sexual assaults in the community are handled.

“It might seem strange to have the CEO of a national sporting code sharing these important concerns,” he said at the unit’s launch.

“My response is – I’m sorry it’s taken so long.”

The unit’s launch on 26 April coincided with the establishment of a new sexual assault centre in Frankston, identical to one already established in Mildura.

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