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

As outlined above, a detailed quantitative analysis of attrition rates of sexual offences in the ACT criminal justice system was not possible as part of this preliminary evaluation of the SARP reforms. Preliminary quantitative and qualitative data on the attrition of sexual offence victim/survivors in the ACT criminal justice system were, however, collected from key stakeholders. This chapter describes the qualitative data.

Wraparound agencies were unanimous in reporting that it was too soon to tell whether SARP reforms have had a significant impact on reducing attrition. (The reasons for this are outlined in detail above.) Chiefly, the long time it takes for sexual offence cases to progress through the criminal justice system has resulted in only a small number of cases being finalised since the reforms were introduced.

ACT Policing indicated that reasons for attrition can be subjective, and a victim/survivor may interpret the reasons why their case does not progress in a different way from the police and prosecutors.

Common reasons for the attrition of sexual offence cases include:

  • insufficient evidence (eg the victim gave no statement, or the offender could not be located);
  • disrespectful/discourteous treatment of victim/survivors (by police, courts, and/or support service providers);
  • intrusiveness and trauma arising from cross-examinations;
  • victim/survivors not being kept informed of the process; and
  • trial delays.

As described in detail earlier in this report, attrition can occur at various ‘points’ in the criminal justice process. VSACT staff highlighted that court delays can contribute heavily to attrition rates. As one representative pointed out, ‘We can do all this fantastic work but, until we address court delay, people will still drop out.’

Attrition after reporting to police but prior to court

Attrition in sexual offence cases is not necessarily due to the process becoming too hard for the victim/survivor once the offender has been charged (Consultation with ACT Policing). The age of the victim/survivor, a lack of corroborating evidence (eg physical evidence) and the timing of the offence can all have a significant influence on attrition rates (Consultation with ACT Policing, CRCC). Cases of long-term sexual abuse usually take longer to investigate than one-off incidents of sexual violence, and this can also affect attrition (Consultation with ACT Policing).

Tables 8 and 9 illustrate the outcomes of sexual offence cases reported to ACT Policing in 2008–09 and 2009–10 respectively. The most common causes of attrition in the criminal justice system at the point of police investigation during the two-year period from 1 July 2008 to 30 June 2010 were:

  • insufficient evidence (31.1% of finalised cases);
  • the victim/ withdrsurvivorawing the complaint (26.6%); and
  • inability to identify the offender (14.4%).

Although previous research has found that cases of sexual offence against children have one of the highest rates of attrition of any offence (Eastwood, Kift & Grace 2006), police in the present study indicated that in their experience these cases are more likely to progress. It is likely that while these cases may progress in the criminal justice system, they may still result in a finding of not guilty. However, police stakeholders reported that they often dealt with females in late adolescence who were involved in consensual sexual incidents that they tended to later regret, and that there is high attrition among this group.

The Wraparound data outlined in Tables 8 and 9, however, indicate that false allegations were rarely made (or recorded) by police during 2008–09 and 2009–10. In 2008–09 one false allegation was recorded (0.4% of all finalised cases), and in 2009–10 six false allegations were recorded (2.1% of all finalised cases). In addition, it should be noted that such incidents would not explain the high attrition rates recorded at later stages of the criminal justice process because they do not make it to court.

Evidentiary attrition is also common. This is when an offence has occurred but there is insufficient evidence to prove it. There are also victim/survivors who may report an offence to police but do not want it to progress further. Determining consent is also influenced by age. When victim/survivors are adults, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the offender knew or was reckless that s/he did not have the consent of the other person.

It was hypothesised that if a reverse onus was placed on the offender (ie an offender being required to prove that s/he did have consent) the attrition rate would be lower, although this is not able to be tested. For cases involving children, consent is not taken into account because all sexual incidents involving children less than 16 years of age are illegal, making it easier to present a case in court (Consultation with ACT Policing).

Table 8: Outcome of finalised sexual offence cases reported to ACT Policing, 2008–09 (n=230)
Outcome Number Percent of finalised cases (n=230) Percent of all cases (n=245)a
Complaint withdrawn 60 26.1 24.5
Insufficient evidence 64 27.8 26.1
Before court 29 12.6 11.8
Unidentified offender 41 17.8 16.7
Enquiries continuing 7 3.0 2.9
False allegation 1 0.4 0.4
Transfer to other police service or other agency 6 2.6 2.4
No response from victim 6 2.6 2.4
Legislation issues 1 0.4 0.4
Subject to appeal 2 0.8 0.8
Criminal caution issued 2 0.8 0.8
Matter finalised in court 10 4.3 4.1
Diplomatic status 1 0.4 0.4
Total 230 99.60 93.7

a: Total does not add up to 100 due to rounding

Source: Wraparound data file

Table 9: Outcome of finalised sexual offence cases reported to ACT Policing, 2009–10 (n=243)
Outcome Number Percent of finalised cases (n=243) Percent of all cases (n=280)a
Complaint withdrawn 66 27.2 23.6
Insufficient evidence 83 34.2 29.6
Before court 27 11.1 9.6
Unidentified offender 27 11.1 9.6
Enquiries continuing 0 0.0 0.0
False allegation 6 2.5 2.1
Transfer to other police service or other agency 7 2.9 2.5
No response from victim 13 5.3 4.6
Legislation issues 2 0.8 0.7
Subject to appeal 0 0.0 0.0
Criminal caution issued 6 2.5 2.1
Matter finalised in court 6 2.5 2.1
Diplomatic status 0 0.0 0.0
Total 243 100 86.5

a: Total does not add up to 100 due to rounding

Source: Wraparound data file

Attrition when the matter has been referred to the DPP

The DPP representatives observed that by the time a case reaches court few victim/survivors ‘pull out’ of the criminal justice process. This is in line with international research, which indicates that most victim/survivors pull out at the investigation stage. However, some attrition still occurs at this stage, and it was conceded that the key factor in attrition prior to SARP was trial delay. As described above, this continues to be the case, and delays can occur for numerous reasons.

Delays can create additional trauma for the victim (Consultation with CRCC) and can influence the decision to leave the criminal justice system. In addition, the prospect of lengthy delays were thought to make victims reluctant to go through the process if the sentence given to the offender is comparable to the time they wait before the trial begins and they give evidence (Consultation with ACT Policing). It was therefore suggested that the case management process ‘needs to be sharper and…held to greater accountability’ (Consultation with VSACT).

Reasons that victim/survivors choose to stay in the criminal justice system

Given the high degree of attrition of sexual offence cases, victim/survivors who stayed in the criminal justice system were asked why they chose to stay. One commented that, despite the continuous and unwelcome media and social pressure, the key motivations for pursuing the case remained—for example, seeking recognition that the offence was ‘not right’ and preventing the same thing happening to someone else.

There was also a sense of going ‘too far down the path to turn back now’, particularly as a lot of damage had already been done and ‘enemies had already been made’ (being physically assaulted by supporters of the offender, accused of being ‘in it for the money’ and extensive publicity about the case). The victim/survivor indicated that during this time there was little that the police or support agencies could do to address the societal pressures, as this was out of their control.

Other victim/survivors chose to stay in the criminal justice system to ensure the offender would not be able to victimise others and/or to ensure the offender received help with issues related to their offending (eg drug and alcohol addictions).

Key points
  • There is little evidence available at this stage about the effect the SARP reforms have had on the attrition of sexual offence cases in the ACT criminal justice system.
  • Attrition rates can be influenced by a wide range of factors, including the age of the victim/survivor and whether the offence is historical or recent.
  • The length of time it takes for cases to be resolved in court, and other delays associated with the court process, are considered major factors in the attrition of sexual offence cases from the criminal justice system.