We are still waiting for a shift from ‘real rape’ to real justice

Once again our media is covering another story of male high school students getting girls drunk so they can perform sexualised acts with them to post on line. Again these young men have only been issued warnings rather than being charged by the police. It was great to see the Principals’ Association speaking out and raising their concerns about this. The sad truth is this is not a surprise to anyone involved in advocating for law reform in NZ.

We have very little education in our schools. To rectify this, last year ACC piloted a sexual violence prevention programme for high schools, called Mates and Dates. It went well but they only have plans to roll this out to 46 of 367 secondary schools by 2016; hardly satisfactory. It could be argued the institutional response has been even worse.

Earlier this year Police Commissioner Mike Bush said that the Police Complaints Authority investigation into the police response to the ‘Roast busters cases’ “had found no evidence of ongoing and widespread poor practice nationally.” That is true, because they didn’t conduct a nationwide investigation. They did however find that several previously identified police shortcomings in sexual abuse investigations had been found in the Roast busters case.

Justice and accountability are pretty fundamental if we are going to reduce sexual violence in New Zealand. Yet we seem to be stuck in this cycle of continuing injustice and surprise that nothing has changed, despite nothing substantial having actually changed.

In the wake of decades of advocacy for law reform and the public outrage in the face of Louise Nicholas’s inability to get justice in our courts, legal experts Elisabeth McDonald and Yvette Tinsley wrote the book From Real Rape to Real Justice; prosecuting rape in New Zealand. The title reflects their findings that despite our laws, our courts can really only be relied on when the rapist is a stranger who leaves physical injuries and evidence. This weighty and informed book provided 42 recommendations to enable our justice system to provide justice to victims of sexual violence. This in turn resulted in the Law Commission consulting on alternative pre-trial and trial processes. This consultation did not consider all of the recommendations made in their book but it was a good start. This work was frustratingly taken off their work agenda by the then minister Judith Collins. The new Minister, Amy Adams, has put it back on their agenda but given them a time frame that means they will not be able to consider even the majority of recommendations that they previously consulted on.

We need to address these problems thoroughly while maintaining our sense of urgency. As long as we tinker with the system we will keep getting unpleasant surprises and sexual abuse will continue as it does now without much consequence.