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From courtroom to classroom

News

Cite as: Cite as: March 2012 86 (03) LIJ, p.20

 A new program aims to reduce appeals in sexual offence cases.

Reducing appeals in sexual offence cases is behind a new specialist training program for Victorian lawyers that is an Australian first.

The Interactive Legal Education Program (ILEP), to be launched on 2 April by the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP), aims to sharpen the skills of solicitors and barristers involved in sexual offence matters.

The 12-month pilot program has three phases – online learning with a two-hour Q&A exercise; four interactive workshops focusing on advocacy with senior members of the judiciary and Victorian Bar; and trial review and debrief sessions.

The OPP lawyer charged with launching the ILEP, Helen Fatouros, said reducing appellable error was “part of the thinking” when designing the ILEP, but it would not wholly guide the training.

She said there was no “magic bullet” that would address the issues surrounding sexual assault cases in Victoria.

Providing justice to sexual assault victims has long been cause for concern in Victoria’s criminal justice system. Reforms to sexual assault laws, including tougher sentences for rape, and procedures were introduced in 2006 but reporting and conviction rates are still low – and getting lower.

Convictions in sex matters in Victoria between 2004-05 and 2008-09 were between 71-78 per cent. This dropped to 64 per cent by 2009-10. The number of reported sexual offences peaked at 8411 in 2005-06; in 2009-10 the figure was 6665.

Tougher sentences for rape and mandatory inclusion on the Sex Offenders Register for offenders and their vilification in the media, it has been suggested, have removed the incentive to plead guilty, resulting in low conviction rates.

“[The ILEP] is a training program . . . we want to reduce appellable error so we don’t put the accused and the victim through it again. This is one aspect of a solution,” Ms Fatouros said.

“We are looking to get better outcomes for victims and practitioners as they manage a case. It’s to make sure everyone does the best they can do, for the best outcome.”

LIV president Michael Holcroft welcomed the ILEP, saying reducing appeals and re-trials by way of improving the advocacy skills of practitioners was a worthwhile aim.

“Anything that can assist in reducing appeals and re-trials by getting it right the first time will benefit the courts and the community,” Mr Holcroft said.

In an Australian first, courtrooms will become classrooms in the new program, with prosecution and defence barristers and solicitors acting in sexual offence cases assessed by peers then given feedback on their trial performance in cooperative group and individual debrief sessions.

Solicitor for Public Prosecutions Craig Hyland said the ILEP was aimed at further raising the professional effectiveness of the Victorian criminal justice system in its handling of sexual offence matters.

“Reflecting the importance we place on the training, the OPP has determined that barristers prosecuting sexual offence matters will be expected to have completed the online learning and workshops,” Mr Hyland said.

The OPP, which has been funded by the Legal Services Board (LSB) to deliver the project, has worked in partnership with key stakeholders in the justice system to develop and implement the training.

Representatives of the LIV, Department of Justice, Judicial College of Victoria, Victoria Legal Aid, Criminal Bar Association, Victorian Bar, Victoria Police and judicial officers from the courts are on the ILEP advisory committee.

“This project is unique because it has brought together several stakeholders – including prosecution and defence – with the joint aim of improving the handling of sexual assault matters,” Mr Hyland said.

Ms Fatouros said the three-stage program would increase practical knowledge as well as cater to all levels of experience – in city and rural regions.

“You might have a regional practitioner who doesn’t do these cases day in, day out and has a client charged with sexual assault. He might be asking: ‘where do I start?’. There are a lot of complex procedures in these cases,” Ms Fatouros said.

“The online module is an information hub. The workshops will use practical exercises to point out the pitfalls, show what can go right and wrong. They will look at the sensitivities of cross-examining, and dealing with adult victims and child complainants.”

For more information go to: www.opp.vic.gov.au.

Carolyn Ford

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