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Conclusions, recommendations and future directions

This report has outlined findings from a preliminary evaluation of the ACT’s Sexual Assault Reform Program (SARP). Given its infancy, it is not possible at this stage to draw concrete conclusions about the efficacy of the SARP reforms. The preliminary evaluation nonetheless raises some key points about the successes and shortcomings of the reforms to date. The remainder of this section summarises these and provides some recommendations for both the future of SARP and future evaluations of its reforms.

SARP’s main objectives are reiterated as follows:

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

By implementing these reforms, change is expected to occur via the following key mechanisms:

  • reducing the length of time a victim/survivor spends in the criminal justice system;
  • providing more support at the time of contact;
  • improving coordination among agencies; and
  • reducing the impact on victim/survivors of reporting sexual offences.

Key successes of the reforms to date

Overall, it appears that the more successful elements of SARP relate to the coordination among agencies that administer SARP and participate in Wraparound. This success is underpinned by the willingness of agency staff to engage in the process. The proactiveness of many of the Wraparound agencies in re-engaging in a reference group (albeit at this stage informally) in order to work through issues related to the reforms is indicative of the level of collaboration and trust among the agencies and their commitment to work together to improve the implementation of the reforms beyond minimum obligations.

As a result, the agencies have moved from an arrangement of simple coordination to one of proactive collaboration. This has enabled them to avoid under- or over-servicing victim/survivors and focus on their specific roles in the ACT criminal justice system. The increased collaboration among agencies appears to have resulted in a ‘joined up’ process for victim/survivors, as well as a more efficient use of resources.

In addition, the upgrading of technology and equipment (eg SARP remote witness facilities, better audiovisual and recording systems) has made the criminal justice process less prone to equipment failure and has helped create a more supportive context for victim/survivors giving evidence. This is underpinned by the presence of the SARP technology officer. The remote witness room has also had positive consequences for victim/survivors, allowing them to give evidence away from the accused and outside of the courtroom. This is also the case for the evidence-in-chief provisions. Although simple changes, they have brought about significant improvements in services to victim/survivors of sexual offences.

Importantly, the SARP reforms appear to have improved the criminal justice process for victim/survivors of sexual offences in the ACT. Stakeholders consulted for this study felt strongly that their increased collaboration has resulted in fewer victim/survivors ‘falling through the cracks’ of the criminal justice system. In addition, specific legislative changes, such as allowing victim/survivors to give evidence at pre-trial hearings, are considered by stakeholders to have improved the criminal justice process for victim/survivors.

Although only a small number of victim/survivors were able to be interviewed for this study (n=5), all made positive comments about elements of the SARP reforms. In particular, victim/survivors appreciated:

  • collaboration among agencies, which meant they did not have to repeatedly tell their story;
  • technological advances, like CCTV, which meant they did not have to face the offender in the courtroom;
  • the remote witness facility, as this reduced the likelihood of seeing the offender during the trial; and
  • ongoing support and assistance provided by law enforcement and service delivery providers.

Importantly, victim/survivors were largely satisfied with the criminal justice process and claimed they would report an offence again, even in cases where a verdict of not guilty was handed down.

As noted throughout this report, however, victim/survivors had a range of suggestions as to how the criminal justice process in the ACT could be further improved for them. It should also be noted that victim/survivors’ motivations for pursuing their cases (and claiming they would do so again) often stemmed from factors unrelated to the criminal justice system per se (eg because ‘it is the right thing to do’).

Key areas for future improvements

Despite these successes, a number of areas for improvement remain. As outlined in more detail in the recommendations below, not all of these are within the control of the SARP agencies. They are nonetheless issues that SARP agencies, the broader criminal justice system and the community as a whole should be aware of if criminal justice responses to sexual offending are to improve.

Attrition in the criminal justice system

As described earlier in this report, the SARP reforms have not been in place for long enough to assess their impact on rates of attrition of sexual offence cases in the criminal justice system. However, this preliminary evaluation suggests that as a result of the reforms victim/survivor experiences through the criminal justice system has improved. This should encourage victim/survivors to remain in the criminal justice system, which in turn will contribute to a reduction in rates of attrition in the future. The capacity of the reforms to reduce attrition should nonetheless comprise a key component of future evaluations of SARP.

Trial delays

Although preliminary, this evaluation suggests that the SARP reforms have not yet had an impact on reducing the time it takes for sexual offences to progress through the court system. In particular, the legislative changes to committal hearings that have allowed cases to move through the Magistrates Court more swiftly did not appear to reduce the time it takes for cases to be finalised in the Supreme Court. The persistence of delays must be carefully monitored to ensure it does not have a detrimental impact on the victim/survivors or on overall attrition rates.

However, court delays are not isolated to sexual offence cases but are considered a ‘global’ problem affecting every type of case that progresses to the Supreme Court. Consequently, the SARP reforms alone are unlikely to have a significant effect on the length of time it takes for cases to be finalised in the Supreme Court. This issue therefore needs to be considered in relation to other criminal proceedings in the ACT judicial system (Consultation with Courts). It is important for local agencies that provide services to victim/survivors of sexual offences to focus on the elements of the criminal justice process that they have some control over; in most cases this does not include court delays.

Broader social pressure on victims

One of the more striking perceptions of the victim/survivors was that public responses to their cases (including responses of family, friends and acquaintances), and in some cases media coverage, were a greater source of stress than the criminal justice process. This suggests that improving victim/survivor perceptions of justice should not be solely reliant on the actions of traditional criminal justice agencies such as the police, courts and the DPP; it should be broadened to other sectors that could provide victims ‘a menu of options’ (Daly 2011: 26) that do not necessarily sit within formal criminal justice channels.

This is not to suggest that further initiatives that aim to reduce trial delays and improve the experience of victim/survivors within the criminal justice system are not worth exploring. Rather, future approaches specific to criminal justice should be considered in concert with less traditional, more victim-focused responses.

The ‘forgotten victims’ of sexual offences

Consultations with stakeholders and interviews with victim/survivors revealed that, although processes appear to have improved for primary victim/survivors of sexual offences, secondary victims (ie close family members) could be better supported in the ACT. This is critical not only for the wellbeing of secondary victims but also because these individuals provide a key source of support to the primary victim/survivors of sexual offences. Providing enhanced services to these ‘forgotten victims’ should therefore both improve criminal justice processes for victim/survivors and contribute towards reducing attrition in the system in the longer term.

This preliminary evaluation has further identified that, while the SARP reforms may have improved criminal justice processes for child and adult victim/survivors, adolescent victim/survivors could be better supported with more appropriate measures to assist them through the criminal justice process.

Recommendations

Ultimately, the SARP reforms have provided a useful foundation on which to continue improving service provision to victim/survivors of sexual offences in the ACT. As highlighted earlier in this report, in some instances successes have not been achieved in isolation, and a number of other strategies implemented alongside the SARP reforms (eg the Court Improvement Project) have contributed to current improvements.

Nonetheless, this report makes a number of recommendations related to meeting the objectives of the SARP reforms. These are outlined below.

  • As lengthy trial delays can still affect sexual offence cases in the criminal justice system, the ACT may consider introducing a time limit for sexual offence cases. Time limits have been legislated in other Australian jurisdictions specifically for sexual offences. For example, in Victoria, section 99(2) of its Criminal procedure Act 2009 has specified that committal proceedings should be determined within two months of the committal mention hearing (http://www.legislation.vic.gov.au/domino/Web_Notes/LDMS/LTObject_Store/LTObjSt6.nsf/DDE300B846EED9C7CA257616000A3571/7CC40F6124771AF0CA257981000F95DE/$FILE/09-7aa19B%20authorised.pdf). The Northern Territory’s Sexual Offences (Evidence and Procedure) Act, section 3A also imposes time limits, namely:
    1. If a person is to be tried summarily for a sexual offence, the trial must be commenced within 3 months of the matter being first mentioned in court.
    2. If a person is charged with an indictable offence that is a sexual offence, a preliminary investigation under Part V, Division 1 of the Justices Act must be commenced within 3 months of the matter being first mentioned in court.
    3. If a person is to be tried on indictment for a sexual offence, the trial must be commenced within 3 months of the person being committed for trial.
    4. The court in which the person is to be tried, or which is to conduct a preliminary examination (as the case may be) may, if it thinks fit, at any time and despite that the period fixed by subsection (1), (2) or (3) (as the case may be) has expired, grant an extension, not exceeding 3 months, of the period.
    5. More than one extension may be granted under subsection (4).

The effectiveness of these and similar provisions could be reviewed and, if determined effective in reducing trial delays in the ACT, adapted to suit the needs of ACT stakeholders.

  • A key agency driver is required to ensure the SARP reforms continue to be implemented appropriately, and to monitor any changes or developments that require Wraparound attention. This could also involve formalising the Wraparound and/or SARP development groups. JACS has been identified as the agency best placed to provide this support, and JACS has indicated that it is committed to providing a continuing monitoring role and to helping facilitate SARP Reference Group meetings on a needs basis.
  • Fuller explanations of the Wraparound process should to be provided to victim/survivors of sexual offences. As the take-up of Wraparound could be increased, clearer explanations of what participating in Wraparound would mean for victim/survivors and how they could benefit need to be delivered to those reporting sexual offences in the Australian Capital Territory.
  • An increased focus on assisting and supporting the ‘forgotten victims’ of sexual offences, primarily family members who support victim/survivors through the criminal justice process, should be a key consideration of future SARP developments.
  • More appropriate service provision to adolescent victim/survivors should also be a future priority, as this preliminary evaluation has identified that criminal justice measures are often most appropriate for young children or adults.
  • As continuity for victim/survivors was highlighted by both service delivery providers and victim/survivors as a critical aspect of the criminal justice process, ACT Policing could consider allowing SACAT officers to remain involved in sexual offence cases even after they have been rotated out of SACAT. Although officers are rotated for occupational health and safety and career development reasons, stakeholders reported that some officers want to remain involved in sexual offence cases.
  • Community education, while clearly outside the domain of SARP agencies, is nonetheless an important objective. For victim/survivors interviewed for this study, social pressure was often the worst aspect of progressing through the criminal justice system.

As stressed above, it is recognised that these are not all within the direct control of SARP agencies, and should be addressed by criminal and social justice agencies more broadly.

Future evaluation of the Sexual Assault Reform Program

It is recommended that the SARP reforms are evaluated more fully once they are further embedded in the ACT criminal justice system. In particular, future evaluations should consider the views of a much larger number of victim/survivors of sexual offences than were able to be interviewed for this preliminary evaluation. As outlined above, future research should consider in particular whether and why trial delays continue and the effects of the SARP reforms on levels of attrition.

Further, the researchers recognise the ongoing importance of investigating service delivery to victims/survivors of sexual offences who are from CALD backgrounds, who have mental illness problems and/or a disabilities, and who are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent. The effect (if any) of the reforms on these groups should be explored where possible. It was also raised that for future evaluations carers of victim/survivors with a disability could be consulted. Of particular concern was the potential for victim/survivors with disabilities to experience credibility issues when pursuing cases within the criminal justice system. More targeted training for police officers and other professionals on responding to victim/survivors of sexual offences who have disabilities (eg in non-verbal ways of communicating) would be beneficial in this regard.