Australian Institute of Criminology

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Executive summary

Background and context

In 2005 the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) produced a report, Responding to sexual assault: The challenge of change (DPP & AFP 2005), which made 105 recommendations for reforming the way sexual offence cases are handled by the ACT’s criminal justice system. The Sexual Assault Reform Program (SARP) is one key initiative developed in response to these recommendations. Managed by the ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate (JACS), SARP’s main objective is to improve aspects of the criminal justice system relating to:

  • processes and support for victims of sexual offences as they progress through the system;
  • attrition in sexual offence matters in the criminal justice system; and
  • coordination and collaboration among the agencies involved.

In November 2007 the ACT Attorney-General announced $4 million of funding for several SARP reforms. This funding provided for additional victim support staff; a dedicated additional police officer, prosecutor and legal policy officer; and an upgrade of equipment for the Supreme Court and Magistrates Court, including improvements in technology to assist witnesses in giving evidence, and the establishment of an off-site facility to allow witnesses to give evidence from a location outside of the court.

In addition, the reform agenda included a number of legislative amendments that changed how evidence can be given by victims of sexual and family violence offences, children and other vulnerable witnesses. The primary objectives of these legislative changes are to provide an unintimidating, safe environment for vulnerable witnesses (including sexual offence complainants) to give evidence and to obtain prompt statements from witnesses to improve the quality of evidence captured (DPP 2009: 13).

The current evaluation

The funding for SARP reforms also provided for a preliminary evaluation of the reforms; this report outlines findings from the evaluation. The evaluation sought to address whether the program has met its key objectives: better support for victims, lower attrition rates and improved coordination and collaboration among agencies involved in administering SARP.

The evaluation was conducted in two stages and involved a mixed-methods approach. During stage 1 key indicators for the evaluation were developed with stakeholders. During stage 2 quantitative data were collected by stakeholders and provided to the AIC for analysis. Qualitative interviews were also conducted with service delivery providers, and with a small number (n=5) of victim/survivors of sexual offences whose cases had recently been resolved in the ACT criminal justice system.

The current evaluation is preliminary in nature. As the SARP reforms will take time to become entrenched within the ACT’s criminal justice system, some of the impacts of the reforms may not yet be evident. Nonetheless, this evaluation provides an insight into how well the SARP reforms have been implemented to date, as well as key areas that could be addressed in the future. Key findings from the preliminary evaluation are outlined briefly below.

Improving processes and supports for victim/survivors of sexual offences

The SARP reforms appear to have been successful in improving the criminal justice process for victim/survivors of sexual offences in the ACT in a number of areas. Specifically, stakeholders felt strongly that legislative changes have improved the criminal justice process for sexual offence victim/survivors, and that support services available to victim/survivors improved across most stages of the criminal justice process.

In addition, stakeholders agreed that the new Wraparound process, under which representatives from all relevant law enforcement and service provider agencies in the ACT meet regularly to ensure ‘joined-up’ responses are offered to victim/survivors of sexual offences, has been a success. In particular, the Wraparound process has helped local agencies understand the roles of the agencies that provide services to victim/survivors of sexual offences in the ACT. Stakeholders therefore claimed that collaboration has improved between the local law enforcement sector and the victim support sector.

A number of key limitations of the Wraparound process have, however, been identified by this evaluation. Data on Wraparound indicate, for example, that not all victim/survivors were offered Wraparound and that of those offered Wraparound not all consented to participating. One stakeholder suggested that to improve the proportion of victim/survivors who consent to Wraparound, agencies need to better inform victim/survivors why entering the Wraparound process may be preferable to the alternative of not participating.

This evaluation has also identified that supporters of sexual offence victim/survivors, such as family members, are currently underserviced and often not recognised in the process, although VSACT and CRCC currently provide support and services to the families of the primary victim/survivor. Adequately supporting those who support victim/survivors of sexual offences is important not only for the wellbeing of the support person but also to encourage and assist the victim/survivor to progress through the criminal justice system.

Perhaps SARP’s main limitation in relation to improving the criminal justice process for victim/survivors has been its failure to reduce the time sexual offence cases take to be resolved. There is little evidence that the SARP reforms have made the criminal justice process shorter for victim/survivors; in fact, some sexual offence cases now take even longer to be finalised in court. However, it is recognised that trial delays are not unique to sexual offence cases in the ACT and are experienced broadly across criminal trials. In addition, the introduction of pre-trial hearings has allowed victim/survivors to give evidence substantially earlier in the process than was previously the case, potentially minimising their trauma during the trial process.

Nonetheless, given that the length of time sexual offence cases take to be resolved in court is a major factor in the attrition of sexual offence cases in the criminal justice system, future evaluations considering the longer term impacts of the SARP reforms should focus on what causes delays as well as whether court delays have been minimised.

Reducing attrition in sexual offence matters in the ACT criminal justice system

There is little evidence available at this stage about the effect the SARP reforms have had on the attrition of sexual offence cases. Accurate measurement of changes to the attrition rate requires data gathered over a number of years, so future evaluations of SARP should consider this issue in more detail.

Improving interagency coordination and processes

Key stakeholders who contributed to this research strongly believe that the SARP reforms have resulted in a substantial improvement in the working relationships of agencies that respond to and/or provide services to victim/survivors of sexual offences in the ACT. It appears these relationships have moved from coordination to collaboration as agencies proactively liaise with each other as a result of the reforms. Importantly, this collaborative working environment appears to be having a beneficial impact on victim/survivors, both by increasing their confidence in the agencies and helping them to access appropriate services. Collaborating also helps agencies streamline their services and use time and resources more efficiently.

On the other hand, stakeholders also felt strongly that the governance of SARP lacks overall coordination and that one agency should be responsible for this coordination role. For example, many stakeholders argued that an implementation officer based at JACS should be an ongoing component of the SARP reforms.

Conclusions and future directions

As outlined above, the SARP reforms have provided a useful foundation on which to continue improving services and support for victims/survivors of sexual offences in the ACT. Despite the preliminary nature of the current evaluation, a number of key messages have emerged, as follows.

Interpreting the parameters of the legislation

Stakeholder consultations identified that there are still many aspects of the new legislation that need to be resolved and applied in practice. SARP agencies should therefore consider and respond to any issues concerning aspects of the new legislation as they become more widely implemented.

Reform is an ongoing process

Stakeholders agreed that the SARP reforms have facilitated better interagency collaboration and coordination of support provided to victim/survivors of sexual offences. However, it should be noted that the SARP reforms are part of an ongoing process to improve these services. It is therefore important that relevant agencies maintain their commitment to the reforms and to responding in a ‘joined-up’ manner to the needs of victim/survivors of sexual offences in the ACT. This could be facilitated with guidance from the SARP Reference Group or another governing body.

More efficient use of resources

Although Wraparound agencies have made considerable progress in achieving their aims of better collaboration and fewer victims ‘falling through the cracks’ of the criminal justice system, there remains an opportunity to use resources more efficiently. For example, stakeholders from one agency suggested that a common intake form could be developed to facilitate shared-care planning for victim/survivors to identify and minimise any service overlaps using already stretched resources.

In addition to examining the longer term impacts of the SARP reforms, future research on their effectiveness could also consider to what extent they have addressed the limitations identified in this report.