21 Apr 2023

New Bill seeks to strengthen sex abuse victims' rights within justice system

1:37 pm on 21 April 2023
Kiri Allan

The Bill will be introduced before the election, Justice Minister Kiri Allan says. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Victims of sexual assault will have greater legal protection with a law change that aims to give children and adults better support in the courts.

Justice Minister Kiri Allan has today announced the government will introduce a Bill that includes giving victims more control around their name suppression and aligning the penalty for child sexual abuse to 20 years in prison.

"As part of our drive to make the justice system fairer for victims, we are changing the law and trialling approaches that will better support children and adult victims in the courts," Allan said.

"We've heard from victims and their advocates about where the gaps are in the system. Today we are addressing some of the clearest examples of what needs to change."

The Bill will be introduced before the election and will focus on changes in three areas: sexual violence against children, litigation abuse in family proceedings and giving greater choice to victims of sexual violence around name suppression decisions.

"Currently a child sexual assault victim can be questioned as to whether they consented to sexual activity. This is unacceptable and falls well below societal expectations of how the law should work. We're fixing the law to minimise the risk of this happening," Allan said.

"The Bill will also provide the courts with greater powers to stop litigation abuse, for example filing excessive or abusive applications in family-related proceedings; and clarify the process to lift name suppression in the criminal court, giving victims a clear opportunity at the time of trial to ask about having it lifted."

She said the changes will make an immediate and meaningful difference to the lives of the victims of serious and violent crimes.

"Improving the system will help make complainants feel more comfortable in court and encourage them to come forward," Allan said.

The government will also pilot three programmes to improve child victims' safety and support in Whangārei and Manukau courts, starting in the middle of this year.

Allan said these pilots will test fixes for some of the bigger gaps in the system and provide crucial evidence about what worked.

"The initiatives will be evaluated, adjusted according to frontline and victims' feedback and then, if successful, we can look at how the solution could be scaled up," she said.

"The kind of transformation the criminal justice system needs will take time, but we are committed to delivering for victims."

The government will also provide further funding to help Victim Support and the Victim Assistance Scheme.

Victim Support will receive an additional $3 million in funding and $2.2 million in additional funding will be provided to the Victim Assistance Scheme.

"These services play a critical role in providing frontline support to victims at all stages of the criminal justice process and beyond and builds on the significant investment the government has made since coming into office, including tripling the funding for the Victim Assistance Scheme," Allan said.

Funding for the measures announced today will come from the $45.7m Victims of Crime - Improving Outcomes initiative funding from Budget 2022 and baseline funding.

Today's measures form the first tranche of the three-year work programme to develop a Victims Operating Model.

Prevention of litigation abuse welcomed

Ang Jury

Dr Ang Jury Photo: Pool / NZME

Women's Refuge says giving courts greater powers to stop the use of litigation as a way of harassing victims, is a step in the right direction.

Chief executive Ang Jury told Midday Report said litigation abuse was far more prevalent than most people realised and it was a problem in particular in the Family Court.

An example would be a person attempting to use the court system to harass victims by filing endless small motions that generally had no foundation.

"But they have to be accepted through the court and there's been very little ability for them to be chucked out."

Dr Jury said those victims also faced more expensive legal costs.

"But it also means that processes drone on and on and on so that somebody trying to get their lives safe and healthy and happy again just simply cannot do that because they're continually being called back to court to answer these charges. It's really vicious actually."

She welcomed all the changes announced today, saying every change made a difference. The work being done around sexual assault victims, especially for children, would be "intensely valuable" when they were testifying in court.

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