Why NSW needs Specialised Courts for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Cases

Do we need specialised courts in Australia for domestic violence and sexual assault cases?

Domestic violence and sexual assault are both widespread problems in Australia. According to NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 36% of women assaulted were assaulted in their own home. The Australian Institute of Criminology (1993) found that “one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused in some way before the age of 18 years.”

However, family violence offences and sexual assault offences are the most under reported crimes in Australia. Domestic violence is not taken as seriously as other crimes in our society. Many people feel that it is a private matter that needs to be kept inside the home.

When it comes to sexual assault offending, many victims do not come forward because they feel guilty and ashamed, or they feel they are somehow to blame for the attack. Children who have been sexually assaulted often do not know what has happened to them or are too afraid to come forward due to threats of violence to themselves or their families by the perpetrator if they tell.

Why we need specialised domestic violence and sexual assault courts

The reasons why victims do not come forward in domestic violence and sexual assault cases include:
-Rear of retribution.
-Lack of support and financial resources to enable victims to escape the accused.
-Fear of reliving the event all over again.
-Not wanting to face the accused in court.
-Fear of undergoing cross-examination and hostile questioning by the Criminal Defence Lawyers.
-Feelings of embarrassment and guilt or like they are somehow to blame.
-Lengthy court proceedings that keep the victim from moving on with his or her life.

According to a paper by the Australian Institute of Criminology, The Experiences of Child Complainants of Sexual Abuse in the Criminal Justice System, “only 44 per cent of children in Queensland, 33 per cent in New South Wales and 64 per cent in Western Australia would ever report sexual abuse again following their experiences in the criminal justice system.”

Often victims feel that the criminal justice system is “heavily weighted in favour of the defence throughout the whole of the court and trial procedure,” (The Guardian, 2013).

More victim-centred policies, and legislative and procedural reform is needed if we want to prevent further emotional and psychological damage to the victims of these types of crimes by the justice system.

One way to do this is through specialised courts.

The Benefits of Specialised Courts

Specialised courts provide a holistic approach to dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault cases. They allow police, prosecutors, court personnel and victim support service providers to collaborate together to ensure the safety and support of the victim(s). It is through the sharing of information both within and outside the criminal justice system that enhances the quality of information available to the prosecution. This better quality of information results in more offenders being brought to justice and increases the likelihood of victims remaining committed to the prosecution.

Specialised criminal courts for domestic violence and sex offences not only make the perpetrator accountable for his or her crime, they also provide better services for the accused, which often results in less recidivism.
Magistrates, court officials, prosecutors, and Criminal Defence Lawyers involved in domestic violence and sexual assault cases receive specialised training that allow them to be more responsive to victim’s needs. Going through Apprehended Violence Order or a sexual assault proceeding is emotionally and psychologically traumatising. By having professionals who are sensitive to their needs allow domestic violence and sexual assault victims to no longer feel like they are being attacked or “raped” all over again by the legal system.

Although providing specialised courts for domestic violence and sexual assault cases are “resource intensive,” they “improve the experience of the victims” without forsaking the accused’s right to a fair trial.

Best practices in specialised domestic court and sexual assault courts

One of the best examples of a specialised court model is the ‘cluster court’ model. The ‘cluster court’ model is when criminal cases involving family violence are ‘clustered’ together in one court session that is dedicated to those cases only. Having all the cases ‘clustered’ together facilitates the allocation of judges and prosecutors who have specialised training in this area of law. It also allows for independent advocacy support for victims.

The Australian Law Reform Commission and the NSW Law Reform Commission 2010 report describes the “Family Violence Court Division of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria as the closest example of a ‘one-stop shop’ model for victims of family violence in Australia.” Further stating that it is “the only court that exercises jurisdiction over compensation claims, and family law and child support matters as well as criminal matters and protection orders (apprehended domestic violence orders).”

In essence this dedicated listing of cases on one docket enhances the services to victims by not only offering criminal justice support, but by also increasing access to independent advocacy support for victims as well.

For example: although a Domestic Violence Intervention Court Model (DVICM) piloted in Wagga Wagga and Campbelltown did not have “any significant impact on the finalisation of cases by early pleas, the withdrawal of prosecutions, the time for finalisation, or penalties;” it did increase access to support for the victims.

Sexual assaults on children are particularly troubling and something that we need to seriously address. A Bravehearts report said that research estimates “between 7 and 45 per cent of females and between 3 and 19 per cent of males have been victims of sexual abuse during their childhood (Queensland Crime Commission, 2000).”
When it comes to sexual assaults, especially those committed on children, specialised courts are not just a policy and economic issue; they are a human rights issue. Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states:
“Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for the identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment, described heretofore, and as appropriate, for judicial involvement. “

Even though Public Prosecutions Lloyd Babb has stated that funding is a major issue when it comes to specialised courts for sexual assault victims. Especially sexual assault cases involving children.

It is up to us as a nation to protect our children and keep them safe to the best of our abilities. Especially those made most vulnerable through sexual assault and family violence.

One way to do this is through specialised courts.