Release date: Thursday 10 August 2023
PROFESSOR JULIA QUILTER SAYS A REVIEW OF TRIALS SHOWS THAT, WHILE PREVIOUS REFORMS HAVE MADE IMPROVEMENTS, MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE
It's been 40 years since legislative reforms were first made to improve the experience of victims in sexual offence trials. New research shows that many of these changes are operating as intended. However, various aspects of how trials are conducted still result in a negative experience for victims of sexual violence.
Experience of Complainants of Adult Sexual Offences in the District Court of NSW: A Trial Transcript Analysis, is the largest study of its kind since the landmark 1996 NSW Heroines of Fortitude Report.
The study, commissioned by the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, through the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, was undertaken by Professor Julia Quilter from the School of Law at the University of Wollongong (UOW) and Professor Luke McNamara from UNSW. They analysed the transcripts of 75 sexual offence trials finalised in the District Court of NSW between 2014 and 2020 (more than 30,000 pages of transcript).
Professor Quilter said they were tasked with reviewing the operation of legislative and privacy protections, examination-in-chief and cross-examination approaches, prosecution responses, judicial interventions, rules of evidence and jury directions.
"It was a huge undertaking, but one that was significant, and highlights important issues in the law reform landscape," Professor Quilter said.
"We found that there have been some improvements to complainants' experience in sexual offence trials since procedural reforms started in the 1980s.
"Closed court arrangements, the opportunity for complainants to give evidence via CCTV from a remote location, access to a support person and use of pre-recorded evidence in retrials were all reforms working as intended.
"We also found that most of the time judges and lawyers adopted respectful modes of communication towards victims, and were sensitive to the need for breaks when the complainant was distressed or tired, which was positive to see."
Despite these improvements the study revealed many sexual offence trials continue to feature practices that lead to negative experiences and outcomes for complainants.
Professor Quilter said trials displayed a continuing focus on the conduct of the victim, and whether they had consented, with less attention paid to the accused's knowledge in relation to consent.
"We found that rape myths and stereotypes about how a genuine victim of sexual violence should behave featured prominently in the trials we examined," Professor Quilter said.
Other significant findings in the study include complainants being regularly cross-examined about:
- having made a delayed or incomplete complaint (84% of trials in the study)
- having failed to physically resist (53% of trials)
- having failed to verbally communicate non-consent (53% of trials)
- having incomplete or inconsistent recall of events (76% of trials)
Questioning and closing submissions that accused the complainant of lying were common and in 73% of trials the complainant was accused of fabricating the sexual offence allegation for an ulterior purpose.
The researchers also found that complainants who were intoxicated at the time of the alleged offences faced additional scrutiny, including suggestions of 'drunken consent' and unreliability.
Defence counsel were afforded wide latitude to question complainants on a range of topics, including prior flirtatious behaviour and aspects of their past said to be relevant to credibility. This included topics such as substance use, mental illness or having children in care.
Professor Quilter said the problem is not that judges and lawyers are ignoring or misapplying special rules for sexual offence trials, but that the reform process that began more than 40 years still has a way to go.
"Reforms to date have been important, but there are aspects of what makes sexual offence trials so traumatic for many complainants that have not yet been addressed," Professor Quilter said.
"There is scope to do more to improve the experience for complainants, so that stereotypes and narratives that are out of step with contemporary values no longer feature in sexual offence trials".
The study identifies a number of areas for attention including how the Crown case is presented (with more emphasis on communicative and affirmative consent), the rules and practices governing the relevance of evidence and the admissibility of credibility evidence (and associated cross-examination questioning), wider use of pre-trial 'ground rules hearings' and better use of jury directions.
Executive Director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Jackie Fitzgerald, welcomed this important research. "This study lays bare the confronting reality of how caustic the trial process can be for those seeking justice in response to sexual violence."
UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research and Sustainable Futures) Professor David Currow congratulated Professor Quilter and her colleagues for shining a light on the difficult experience of complainants in sexual offence trials.
"Professor Quilter's research offers valuable insights into this important issue. I hope it serves to guide policy-makers, legal professionals and advocacy groups to work together to make much needed and long-lasting changes going forward," Professor Currow said.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
Experience of Complainants of Adult Sexual Offences in the District Court of NSW: A Trial Transcript Analysis is published by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
NOTE TO MEDIA
Professor Julia Quilter is available for interviews. High resolution images of Professor Quilter are available for download via Dropbox.
Kate Mayhew, Media and Public Relations Specialist
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Copies of the report: www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au
Issued by Kate Mayhew, Media and Public Relations Specialist
University of Wollongong NSW 2522 Australia
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