Changes needed for sexual assault victims/survivors to receive justice

December 6, 2022
Australia’s adversarial justice system does not work for victims/survivors.

ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold’s December 2 decision to abandon the case against Bruce Lehrmann, accused of raping former Liberal party staffer Brittany Higgins, due to an “unacceptable risk to the life of the complainant [Higgins]” highlights the failures of the justice system to deliver for victims of sexual assault and violence.

The alleged sexual assault of a female employee by a more senior male employee in the workplace after hours could have occurred in any workplace, and frequently does.

Since the rape was alleged to have been at federal Parliament, this became a high-profile sexual assault case.

The subsequent actions of the alleged victim’s employer — senior federal Coalition ministers and public service managers — in the lead-up to a federal election compounded an already traumatising situation for Higgins.

She was forced to leave her job while Lehrmann was able to continue working.

Victims/survivors of sexual assault are well aware of the consequences of reporting a crime to police. It means that just 310 out of every 1000 sexual assaults are reported — more than 2 out of 3 go unreported.

According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, based in the United States, victims gave the following reasons for not reporting sexual violence crimes to police: 20% feared retaliation; 13% believed the police would not do anything to help; 13% believed it was a personal matter; 8% reported to a different official; 8% believed it was not important enough to report; 7% did not want to get the perpetrator in trouble; 2% believed the police could not do anything to help; and 30% gave another reason, or did not cite any reason.

Apart from the difficulties of sexual assault, the criminal justice pathway to court hearings and a conviction of alleged perpetrators is a minefield for victims/survivors.

Of those who do report an assault to police in the US, less than 10% ever make it to court and less than 6% ever result in a criminal conviction.

The ABC reported on Australian Bureau of Statistics data, released in July, that sexual assaults are at an all-time high.

More than 31,000 people were recorded as victims of sexual assault last year, a rise of 13% in one year. It was the only major crime category to increase.

Experts say the true figure is much higher, because 87% of people who experience sexual assault do not report it.

ABC journalist Nassim Khadem said the data showed that three in five victims reporting assaults were under 18 years old at the date of the incident.

Australia’s adversarial justice system requires victims/survivors to provide the proof for a criminal prosecution of sexual assault. This means the victim has to redescribe and be cross-examined by the perpetrator’s defence team who quiz every move before, during and after the event, as well as having to justify their life choices and behaviours.

It puts the victim/survivor on trial, and retraumatises and brutalises them all over again. The perpetrator can choose to remain silent, and is not subject to the same scrutiny of cross-examination.

The Geelong Women Unionist Network (GWUN) believes more must be done and has again called for changes to the justice system to better support victims/survivors of sexual assault.

“The adversarial nature of our justice system means that victims face intrusive and retraumatising scrutiny of every aspect of their lives,” GWUN said.

GWUN is campaigning for a royal commission into sexual violence. It believes that only after such a rigorous investigation will specialist rape and sexual assault courts be established across all jurisdictions and national guidelines on rape and consent be developed.

It is also calling for specialist legal frameworks and guidelines that align with community expectations.

[Zeta Henderson is a member of the Geelong Women Unionist Network.]

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