THE Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA) and Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department have released a jointly funded report that considers the changes required to address the urgent need to present the criminal justice system as a realistic rather than re-traumatising option for sexual assault victim-survivors.
Titled Specialist Approaches to Managing Sexual Assault Proceedings: An Integrative Review, the report was led by Chief Investigator and Senior Lecturer in Law at CQUniversity, Amanda-Jane George as part of a joint research project between the AIJA, Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, the CQUniversity College of Law and the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research.
The report was co-authored by fellow CQUniversity colleagues Vicki Lowik, Masahiro Suzuki and Nichola Corbett-Jarvis with Heather Lovatt as project advisor. This significant review of international literature examines measures to improve the justice system’s response to victim-survivors.
“It requires committed action across all jurisdictions, sectors and levels of government to effectively address and prevent its continuation.
“Assuring those who experience sexual violence can expect an empowering and trauma-informed response when reporting sexual assault, and when participating in consequent criminal legal proceedings, is fundamental to strengthening the responses by the criminal legal system to sexual assault in Australia.”
Dr George said the report was commissioned as part of the Standing Council of Attorneys-General Work Plan to Strengthen Criminal Justice Responses to Sexual Assault 2022-2027.
“It addresses two critical issues in the management of sexual assault proceedings that call for specialist approaches: barriers to reporting, and re-traumatising features of the criminal legal process,” she said.
“In undertaking the integrative review of specialist approaches to managing sexual assault proceedings, the paper canvasses current evidence and synthesises best-practice measures to support the development of this form of specialisation.
“It is an important and timely resource.”
Dr George said sexual violence was a life-altering experience for victim-survivors, and its impacts differ for every person.
“In the immediacy of a sexual assault, victim-survivors can experience intense fear, dissociation, memory loss, and confusion — many will go on to experience a diverse array of profound psychological and physical health burdens.
“Anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, along with more chronic psychological conditions like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can shape the lives of victim-survivors long after a sexual assault.”
According to Dr George, one in three women experience sexual violence globally, and in Australia, more than one third of sexual assaults occur in the context of domestic and family violence (DFV).
Dr George said reporting rates were concerningly low.
“In Australia, only 13 per cent of victim-survivors report their experience. There are many barriers to reporting, including individual, cultural and social barriers, as well as systemic barriers inherent in aspects of the criminal justice system itself,” she said.
“These systemic barriers are often interwoven with the issue of re-traumatisation – victim-survivors may be re-traumatised at multiple stages in the criminal justice process.
“This review considers how court proceedings may present systemic barriers and expose victim-survivors to triggering experiences.
“From these experiences, victim-survivors may feel that the criminal justice system has further disempowered, stigmatised, and shamed them.”
Dr George said one potential avenue for change was to introduce greater specialisation in the management of sexual offence proceedings.
“The Work Plan operates with a framework of Australian national, state and territory efforts to prevent, intervene early and facilitate healing from sexual violence,” she said.
“It prioritises strengthening legal frameworks to improve justice outcomes and protections across Australia, building justice sector capability, and supporting research and greater collaboration to identify best practices and to ensure actions are supported by a sound and robust evidence base.”
She said the review addresses systemic barriers to reporting sexual violence, and the re-traumatisation experienced when engaging with the criminal justice system.
“It identifies and evaluates the specialist measures designed to address these concerns in sexual offences courts/lists, and in three comparative domains: child sexual offences courts/lists, DFV courts/lists and specialist prosecution units.”