The following article was published in the Law Institute Journal in December 2006.
Many of the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s recommendations for changes to police and court procedures in sexual offences cases have been implemented.
As reported in the last issue of the LIJ (November 2006), the Victorian Government has implemented many of the Commission’s recommendations for legislative reform in the area of sexual assault.
A range of initiatives in procedure have also been put into place by the Victoria Police; Magistrates’, County and Children’s Courts; Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP); Department of Human Services and Judicial College of Victoria.
Improving police response
The Commission recommended police improve responses to complainants in sexual offences cases and improve training for members of sexual offences and child abuse units and criminal investigation units. The recommendations highlighted the need to provide specialist information for people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and Indigenous communities.
In response to these recommendations, Victoria Police will establish one-stop multidisciplinary sexual assault centres at Magistrates’ Courts which incorporate justice and human service facilities for victims. Two centres will be established initially at Frankston and Mildura.
Victoria Police will also establish multidisciplinary teams to deal with sexual offences cases. These teams will include forensic, counselling and community workers, including specialist services for people from CALD and Indigenous communities, and independent third parties for people with cognitive impairment. These centres should be operating by early 2007.
Improving court efficiency
The Commission made recommendations to improve court management of sexual offences cases, particularly where children or people with a cognitive impairment are complainants or witnesses.
In response to these recommendations, the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court has established a separate court list for cases which involve one or more sexual offences.
In the County Court, a specialist sexual offences list has been established, coordinated by Judge Meryl Sexton. These lists are intended to make the trial process more efficient and more responsive to the needs of all participants, with a particular focus on the needs of complainants, especially vulnerable witnesses.
Upgraded video conferencing equipment is also being installed in County Courts across Victoria for complainants to give evidence remotely from the courtroom via CCTV in sexual offences cases.
Making it easier to give evidence
The Commission recommended that changes were necessary to minimise the trauma to victims of sexual assault when giving evidence.
In response, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) is recruiting nurses in rural and metropolitan areas to provide specialist education, clinical training, professional development and support to forensic nurses working with witnesses in sexual assault cases. A one-year Graduate Certificate in Nursing (Forensic) is now being offered by VIFM and Monash University, which all forensic nurses will have to complete.
The Victorian Government has also established a Child Witness Service based in metropolitan Melbourne. The service will provide support to children who are witnesses in sexual assault cases and their carers, and liaise with police, prosecutors and court staff during trials in the Magistrates’ and County Courts.
The Department of Human Services is also developing better counselling services to assist victims of sexual assault and expanded crisis care responses for children and adults, particularly in rural areas which are not well serviced.
Training for prosecutors and judges
The Commission recommended the OPP continue to offer training to increase prosecutors’ understanding of the issues for complainants in sexual offences cases, particularly when giving evidence.
It advocated that Centres Against Sexual Assault and non-English speaking background and Indigenous community organisations be involved in the training to offer expertise in providing culturally-appropriate responses. The Commission also recommended that prosecutors from the bar should only be briefed to appear in sexual offences cases if they have participated in OPP training.
The OPP has stated that it will develop its sexual offences section to manage a single program of specialist prosecutors for sexual offences cases in the Melbourne County Court.
The Commission also recommended that the Judicial College of Victoria continue to offer regular programs for judges and magistrates designed to facilitate discussion of issues which commonly arise in sexual offences cases. In particular, the Commission highlighted judicial discretion in dealing with child witnesses and witnesses with a cognitive impairment, intervention during cross-examination, and jury warnings.
The Judicial College has announced it will develop a sexual assault manual and an education framework to assist judicial officers, court staff, prosecution and defence counsel and solicitors in sexual offences cases.
The Commission recommended the Department of Human Services and the Children’s Court work towards developing a wider range of responses to children and young people who have been involved in sexually abusive behaviour.
A new Courts and Programs Development Unit within the Department of Justice has been established, with responsibility for implementing a prevention and early intervention program for 15–18 year olds.
The Department of Human Services is also developing programs for children aged under 10 who exhibit sexualised behaviours, focusing on early identification and treatment.