Tele: Experts still waiting for specialised rape courts 15 years after taskforce created

Legal experts who spent years crafting sexual violence reforms to improve the system for victims say the problems “are just as bad as they were 15 years ago”.

They have reiterated calls for specialisation when it comes to dealing with sexual assault matters in court.

The then-Labor government formed the Criminal Offences Sexual Assault Taskforce in 2004 to look at reforming the system in the face of extremely low conviction rates.

The taskforce, made up of 22 bright minds, including judges, magistrates, advocates and police, handed down a suite of recommendations.

Among them was to legally define consent – a sticking point in most sexual assault cases – and appointing specialist judges and prosecutors to hear those cases in courts set aside and equipped with the right technology and case management to prevent delays.

“I think (the taskforce) made huge ground on consent, which is not quite solved yet,” said University of Wollongong Professor Jo Spangaro, who was on the task force in her previous role for NSW Health.

“But I think much of the rest of the work has never been enacted and the issues remain as bad today as they did 15 years ago.

“We still have a criminal justice system that is not victim focused.”

Karen Willis, who was also part of the taskforce and has been advocating for specialised sexual assault courts for years, said: “I was very hopeful that we were going to get change and while we got some, there is a lot more to be done.”

A Matter of Consent is a Saturday and Sunday Telegraph campaign calling for reforms, including specialised sexual assault courts, to improve the justice system for survivors.

Specialised sexual assault courts is an avenue that has been pursued with great success overseas.

But exactly what that looks like differs depending who you ask.

Ms Willis, who stepped down from her long tenure at Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia this week, said it was not about building a new courthouse.

“Bricks and mortar is not the issue,” she said.

“The building is not the problem, it’s what goes on inside the building.

“The key thing from my perspective is having everyone in the court from the judges to the cleaners, trauma-trained relevant to their jobs.”

In New Zealand, an applauded pilot of specialist sexual assault courts led to a significant reduction in delays and became a permanent fixture in 2019.

Adjournments and delay tactics were used by the defence to wear complainants down until they withdrew altogether, Ms Spangaro, a former sexual assault counsellor, said.

In recent years, progress has been made in how child sexual assault matters are handled in court and the former taskforce members who spoke to The Sunday Telegraph want NSW to build on that.

The Child Sexual Assault Evidence Program involves two specialist judges, the use of witness intermediaries to help children cut through the legalese and pre-recording of evidence.

The pre-recording of evidence allows victims to give their evidence in chief and cross examination before the trial starts and away from the jury.

Experts say it reduces the risk of secondary trauma but takes extra resources.

Law Society of NSW President Juliana Warner wants the specialist program expanded across the state.

At the moment, the specialist program is only available in the Sydney and Newcastle District Courts.

NSW Law Society president Juliana Warner would like to see it expanded across the state.

“The current ‘postcode justice’ approach for child complainants should be addressed before expansion to adults is considered,” she said.

“The evaluation of the pilot noted that expanding the number of cases with pre-recorded hearings across the state would have a significant impact on court resources.”

Women’s Legal Service NSW, which was also represented on the taskforce, said specialisation was key to cultural change.

“We strongly support increased specialisation in responding to sexual violence – specialist police, specialist prosecutors, specialist judiciary, specialist support services and specialist interpreters,” law reform and policy co-ordinator Liz Snell said.

“There needs to be tighter case management of prescribed sexual offence matters to reduce delays and better processes, for example, to manage cross-examination.”

Like child complainants, adult sexual assault victim-survivors should also be able to pre-record their evidence and use witness intermediaries.

“Such mechanisms reflect trauma informed practice – reducing the number of times a survivor needs to tell their story and focusing on minimising secondary trauma,” she said.

Former Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery QC said someone needed to review all the research that had been done by the taskforce and others and implement it.

“We have comparable experiences from other jurisdictions that we know about, where they do have specialist courts,” he said.

“What is needed is for someone to make an assessment of the material we already have, pull out the best idea from all of that and put it all into practice.”

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