Judith Collins: Sex offenders must face up to actions


Improvements in the court system are on the way for young women who complain of sexual violence.

Complaints of rape are hard to prove despite all the resources of the state being brought to bear.
Complaints of rape are hard to prove despite all the resources of the state being brought to bear.

Sexual violence is an abhorrent crime. Offenders who sexually attack women, and men, should face the full consequences of their actions.

There are lingering social myths around this behaviour - some consider sexual prowess is some sort of game and conquests are to be applauded while others consider women (even under-age girls) who are at parties, scantily dressed and drinking are "asking for it" and have somehow consented to the attack.

These myths are wrong.

Following the 2007 Commission of Inquiry into police conduct, police introduced a range of new measures to make it easier for victims of sexual violence to make a complaint. Specialist teams work within police to receive complaints and special sexual violence advisers help victims to work through the complaint process.

Even so, we recently heard of a 13-year-old girl who came forward two years ago to make a complaint - she felt hurt and humiliated by the police response.

The Commissioner of Police acknowledges there is more the police can do.

These are the most difficult complaints for any person to make.

Internationally, the percentage of sexual violence assaults that are prosecuted in court and result in successful convictions, is small (around 1 per cent) compared to other crimes.

There are many reasons for this. Often the offender is known to the victim and, in many cases there has been some previous relationship, or acquaintance-ship. The victim often feels embarrassed and worries about public humiliation.

The criminal law requires any crime to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. That means the victim must be prepared to give evidence about what happened. That is very hard.

Much research has been done - and continues to be done - on how to make this process easier for victims to make complaints and give evidence for a successful prosecution.

This Government is committed to providing better support for victims and to increase the prosecution of sexual violence offences.

Our Victims of Crime Reform Bill which is awaiting its second reading in Parliament contains a raft of reforms, including introducing a Victims Code to ensure all victims of crime are provided proper information on services and funding available; providing that victims of serious offences (including sexual offences) will have the right to read all or part of their Victims Impact Statements in court or have someone read out their statement for them; enhancing the Victim Notification System by explicitly including all victims of sexual offences as eligible to be given notice of events to do with the offender, such as bail or parole applications, so that their views can be taken into account.

The Ministry of Justice provides funding for a range of support through the Victims' Centre, including Victim Support's 24/7 crisis response, Auckland Sexual Abuse Help and the Victims 0800 Helpline. Revenue from the Offender Levy funds the work of the national Sexual Violence Survivor Advocate, the Safe@home programme, and specially trained Sexual Violence Court Victim Advisers who provide information on rights, services and case progression through the court process. A range of grants for victims of sexual violence are also available, including travel assistance to attend court proceedings, providing emergency accommodation or increasing home security.

I have also asked my officials to look at how the new UK Independent Victims' Commissioner system might work and whether that would fit with our victims programme in New Zealand.

There have been some recent calls for New Zealand to consider the introduction of specialist sexual violence courts with processes based more on the European model of inquisitorial criminal law. I have considered the Law Commission's Issues Paper on the topic which includes a number of possible changes to our criminal legal system.

Some of the Law Commission's recommendations are being introduced such as providing extra support for child witnesses which I intend to include in upcoming changes to the Evidence Act, providing sexual violence victim support and introducing child protection orders.

Our courts already provide a level of support for vulnerable witnesses including allowing them to give evidence behind a screen so that they are shielded from the accused and automatic name suppression. Other changes in the Evidence Act will include the right for child witnesses to have a support person nearby while giving evidence.

However, proposals to change the entire approach of our criminal court, in my view, go too far.

Under the inquisitorial method discussed in the issues paper, the burden of proof is effectively shifted to the defendant. This means the defendant would have to prove his innocence. Complaints of rape are hard to prove despite all the resources of the state being brought to bear against the accused. They are even harder to disprove. Our judges and lawyers are not trained in the inquisitorial system that exists in some European countries.

Judges who are trained in the inquisitorial approach take control of the evidence, including deciding which witnesses to call for the trial and conducting questioning of witnesses. Evidence is not tested by opposing counsel in the same way as the New Zealand system. It is a more paternalistic approach to trying to elicit the truth with no guarantee of better justice for victims or offenders.

The real difficulty - apart from the cost of setting up a new court system - is that many sexual violence cases include other offences such as kidnapping or other forms of assault. Those other offences would still have to be tried in the normal way, which would mean a duplication of evidence with differing standards and increased revictimisation of witnesses.

I'm committed to finding better ways to support sexual violence victims. I'm seeking advice from the Ministry of Justice and various agencies who are actively engaged in the field of sexual violence to ensure offenders are held to account and victims remain at the heart of our criminal justice system.

Judith Collins is Minister of Justice.

- NZ Herald

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