Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP supports strengthening the criminal justice response to sexual violence

15 February 2024


I rise today to speak on the government proposed Crimes Amendment (Strengthening the Criminal Justice Response to Sexual Violence) Bill 2024. A 2020 investigation by the ABC collected data on sexual assault in each state, territory and postcode—with the exception of the Northern Territory, who refused to provide data to the ABC. This data showed a dire situation. More than 140,000 sexual assaults were reported to Australian police in the 10 years to 2017, but just under 42,600—some 30 per cent of sexual assault reports—led to an arrest, summons, formal caution or other legal action. The other 50,800 investigations—more than 35 per cent of reported sexual assaults—remained unsolved. In New South Wales, only one in 10 reports since 2009 has led to legal action—and that's without addressing how many do not report because they are so disillusioned with the system.

It's clear that, at all levels of government, we are not doing enough on sexual assault and holding those responsible to account. It's just not good enough. Many in this place were on the lawns of parliament during the March4Justice and Enough movement in 2021. It's clear many people around Australia want to see this change. This bill is a good first step. It aims to address, in part, improving the experiences of victims of sexual assault within the criminal justice system. Many survivors of sexual assault have described the judicial process as more traumatising than the initial violence. To change our legal and justice response to sexual assault, and, in doing so, inspire prevention, we must create confidence, consistency, accountability and transparency in the police and justice responses to reports of sexual assault.

We need a victim centred approach within our judicial system that promotes the safety of victims and rejects victim blaming culture. I can't raise that point without referring to and considering the experience we had with a previous staffer in this place. We can't talk about sexual assault and the process of that going through the courts without reflecting on the very high-profile Lehrmann prosecution and the vilification of the victim in that case, Brittany Higgins, by multimedia outlets and by members of this place. We still have not had an adequate answer as to how it was possible that materials produced under compulsion of court proceedings, under notices to produce or subpoenas, found their way onto the front pages in the media. There are questions in relation to review, the news exemptions under the Privacy Act and whether our contempt-of-court laws are adequate to hold to account media outlets when they have such a breach of trust. There are serious questions that remain unanswered in relation to those proceedings, and they are questions I am pursuing with the Attorney-General. We must have a situation where complainants, victims, can have a level of confidence in the legal process and the court process when they bring forward their complaint. This bill goes someway to helping with that.

We also need to talk about police culture. On the substance of and change in this bill, we need to address that there have been numerous reviews into police culture in various states, and investigations by news outlets as well. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to be done. The 2022 independent commission of inquiry into Queensland Police Service responses to domestic and family violence report found the following concerning Queensland Police—and we must think about these findings in conjunction with just how many reports from victims do not lead to prosecution; we have to think about the nexus between all these issues.

Despite the initial protestations of the Commissioner of Police and the President of the Police Union of Employees, the Commission has found clear evidence of a culture where attitudes of misogyny, sexism and racism are allowed to be expressed, and at times acted upon, largely unchecked. Where complaints in relation to such treatment are brushed aside or dealt with in the most minor of ways and those who complain are the ones who are shunned and punished. It is hardly surprising that these attitudes are reflected then in the way that those police who hold them respond to victim-survivors. It is a failure of the leadership of the organisation that this situation has been allowed to continue over many years …

A 2021 Herald Sun investigation uncovered allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by senior New South Wales police officers, with these individuals often protected by a boys' club culture against internal complaints. An independent review of New South Wales Police by former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick in 2019 found that one in three women had reported sexual harassment by a colleague in the past five years. Within the context of such a culture within state police forces—while, of course, abhorrent—there's no doubt that there is a flow-on effect on how police then properly handle, investigate and recommend prosecutions in relation to sexual and domestic violence cases. So, whilst this bill doesn't deal with this directly, it must be highlighted that a wholesale culture change within Australia's law enforcement fraternity is required as part of the wider change to put victims of such horrible crimes at the heart of our investigation and justice system.

This week I've in raising my grave concerns and calls for greater action in relation to domestic violence. This is all linked. Our systems are not yet set up to protect victims of violence. Too often they are women. In my electorate of Warringah, caseworkers for Women and Children First meet women who have suffered from domestic violence for coffee in public spaces so they have an easy excuse of why they're there. Why? Because so many are being tracked by technology. These organisations, on the frontline of the domestic violence catastrophe in this country, are trying to offer support, safety and advice. But, too often, there are concerns that there isn't enough support from law enforcement and then the justice system. For example, just last week, a client of that centre, who is living in a refuge, had her location disclosed to the court by Medicare. It was demanded by a dangerous perpetrator without any advance warning. It shows how our justice system and our bureaucratic systems are simply not set up to protect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. We have a lot of talk in this place, but we really need to start getting more action. In particular, we need leadership from the top to ensure we have wholesale systemic changes across multiple levels of organisation.

The bill before us does create positive change. I really commend the government and urge them to continue working on bringing in more change. It aims to improve the experiences of victims of sexual assault within the criminal justice system. Specifically, it makes the following key changes: it expands protections for vulnerable persons and ensures that the special rules more comprehensively protect vulnerable persons; it makes the evidence of a vulnerable adult complainant's reputation, with respect to sexual activity, inadmissible in a vulnerable adult proceeding; and it restricts the admissibility of sexual experience evidence of vulnerable adult complainants, unless the court grants leave and considers specific criteria. The court must also have regard to whether the probative value of such evidence outweighs any distress, humiliation or embarrassment it might cause the vulnerable person.

The bill also enables a court to order evidence recording hearings in proceedings involving vulnerable persons if it's considered it's in the interests of justice to do so. The bill also sets out conditions regarding how the evidence recording hearing must be conducted. It introduces safeguards to protect recorded evidence given by vulnerable persons from misuse. It also sets out a new requirement for the court to arrange an interpreter for a vulnerable person to assist the person to understand and participate in the proceedings if they are unable to because of inadequate knowledge of English language or physical disability. Finally, the bill clarifies that the current restriction on publishing material that identifies or is likely to identify another person as a child witness, child complainant or vulnerable adult complainant in a proceeding does not apply to a vulnerable person who publishes self-identifying material. This is important because the victim should not be restricted from being able to express themselves. We know, and it has really been highlighted more and more, just how important that is, because silencing victims adds to the trauma that they have already suffered.

We have to be cognisant of just how many—among the rates, it's impossible to know the exact number. Such a small percentage of sexual assault survivors raise a complaint in the first place. They are fearful of going to the police. Their treatment by the police often leads to a lot of questions. The lack of proper investigation and then the incredibly small percentage of ensuing prosecutions lead to a situation where victims and survivors of sexual assault have so little trust and faith in the system and are reluctant to engage with it. That absolutely must change. Anyone who has been in this place over the last few years simply can't look at this question without reflecting on the treatment in the media of an alleged victim in this place.

Overall, this bill is a step in the right direction for a more victim-centred justice system for those who suffer the trauma of sexual assault. But I urge the government to remain open-minded on further reforms as needed, particularly to ensure greater streamlining between federal and state jurisdictions. It that has been brought to my attention that, where a case goes across state lines, often evidence and prosecution fall through the cracks for victims of sexual assault, in particular in the case of minors. That may need to be considered from the Commonwealth federal jurisdiction because going across state lines often leads to the cases not proceeding to prosecution.

It's clear that this is an area where we must do so much more. We must put the victim first and provide adequate protections and support. I know this is an ongoing situation. Many members of parliament, in particular anyone who attended the March4Justice rallies before Parliament House—it was incredible. Women of all ages, races, colours, experiences and financial demographics were in tears that finally there was some conversation about the experience and what they had survived. We simply can't stay silent on those issues. It's time we bring sexual assault to the fore to really deal with it. We know the links when it comes to domestic violence; this is all interlinked. We have to have a robust system of investigation, prosecution and then judicial determination to ensure it can be dealt with.