The Law Commission recommendations for improvements in sexual violence cases is a start but the Commission’s work was seriously compromised by the Government. The Law Commission’s released its report The Justice Response to Victims of Sexual Violence today and it highlights a broken system where 80 per cent of offences aren’t reported and less than 1 per cent of instances result in convictions.
To most victims of sexual violence, it is apparent that the system is broken. All the women over the years who did not report the offence committed against them knew that. All the women who have been traumatised by the police, or by the courts, knew that. I think that the failure to get a conviction on behalf of Louise Nicholas was a wakeup call to NZ, especially when Brad Shipton’s previous convictions were disclosed to the public.
Advocates have been raising issues for decades now about police behaviour, charging behaviour, the treatment of victims on the stand, the experience of sharing intimate traumatic details in front of the jury, the penalty being a deterrent to conviction, why most rape cases while being eligible to be heard in the high court are heard in the district court, the difficulty of getting evidence about the defendants past into the court, while the victims history is almost open slather, the hostility of the physical environment, and the likelihood of judges and even more so juries, will believe the rape myths that pervade our society. These are very serious problems, and the Law Commission was short changed by the Government on investigating these.
The report released today has its roots in the 2007 Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence that was initiated after the Louise Nicholas verdict. This report was started in 2010 exploring alternative pre trial and trail options. This was shelved by Judith Collins as the Minister of Justice. The Government was asked to reinstate this work in a petition signed by 120,000 people after the Roastbusters debacle. Amy Adams put the report back on the table, at the end of 2014, with a new terms of reference and an untenably short time frame especially considering the legal environment had changed.
This report is not the comprehensive response that victims deserved. The report lays out some options, and these needed far more depth and investigation. Serving up under cooked ideas within a constrained funding environment risks entrenching the most significant failures.
A specialist sexual violence commission runs the risk of overlooking the often interconnected issues of family violence and child abuse. It is also detached from a gendered analysis of the violence.
The alternative process proposed for sexual violence cases, while having value in certain situations, needs a lot more work and there are questions over capacity to deliver this model appropriately. We need the courts to be able to convict when victims have been too drunk or drugged to be able to consent. We need that message to be clearly and publicly conveyed by our courts; the proposed alternative model will not do that. I support the going ahead of this work, but question whether enough core concerns of victim advocates have been heard, listened to, and enacted throughout this report. The specialist courts with shortened time frames for hearing cases and (limited)training for legal actors certainly deserves development and we can only hope it offers the hope of addressing the range of issues raised over decades. Sadly though many of those core issues such as police practice, what evidence is admissible, whether there are less traumatising ways to establish the facts to name but three that have not been considered.
I think of the victims who have not used the justice system for fear of re-traumatisation, and for victims who have not been able to secure a conviction in our current system. This Law Commission report does not go far enough to hear these concerns, and the Government must bear the brunt of this disappointment.
There is a clear call for change, and New Zealanders deserve better from society, from our courts, and from the Government than a rushed process and report.