18 Nov 2019

Sexual violence law changes 'long overdue'

3:19 pm on 18 November 2019

By Kyla Rayner*

Analysis - Last Thursday, we saw the first reading of the Sexual Violence Legislation Bill in Parliament. Once passed, this Bill will bring about some fundamental shifts inside courtrooms for survivors of sexual violence. It is Wellington Rape Crisis's hope that this will make real progress towards reducing the harm that seeking justice has caused for survivors.

Follow the law. Professional lawyer sitting at the table and signing papers with justice statue standing on surface in forefront.

Photo: 123RF

These changes are a reflection of efforts by a range of voices, including survivors and specialists working in the sector. They build on the momentum of reports and research, such as the 2007 taskforce and the 2015 Law Commission report, that have provided recommendations to begin to transform our courts. Too many New Zealanders have experienced sexual violence, and not enough have felt comfortable engaging in our justice system or have been left feeling revictimised and traumatised by their experience.

This Bill will hopefully mitigate two problems for survivors seeking justice through our court system.

The first is the natural responses of fear, distress, and anxiety that many survivors feel when faced with reliving their experience of violence in court, especially when this process puts them in close proximity to the person who harmed them.

The Bill will offer new protections to survivors, including the right to choose how they give evidence and undertake cross examination, with audio visual links or pre-recorded evidence so survivors do not have to be present in the courtroom.

There is also the option to clear the courtroom while a survivor reads their victim impact statement, as well as additional communication assistance that will support survivors to better understand the process and people involved, and allow them to ask questions in court to ensure they are informed and accurate evidence is given.

You might be thinking this all sounds rather logical as far as reforms go - that's because it is.

The second problem I hope the changes will mitigate is the inappropriate questions survivors face that can create or reinforce misconceptions regarding sexual violence. The Bill will require judges to intervene in harmful lines of questioning, and give juries direction to address and dispel common myths about rape. While movements like #metoo and young people's activism have created much more visibility and dialogue about consent and sexual violence, we all still have work to do.

Sexual violence is a societal issue, and people sit on juries and people work in court rooms. We absolutely need to challenge our own and others' unhelpful and often harmful beliefs and attitudes around sexual violence to ensure we are delivering just and restorative outcomes for survivors.

Conor Twyford, Wellington Sexual abuse HELP foundation; Kyla Rayner, Wellington Rape Crisis; Minister Andrew Little; Under-Secretary Jan Logie;
Kim McGregor, chief victims’ advisor; Steph Dyhrberg, Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association.

Conor Twyford, Wellington Sexual abuse HELP foundation; Kyla Rayner, Wellington Rape Crisis; Minister Andrew Little; Under-Secretary Jan Logie; Kim McGregor, chief victims' advisor; Steph Dyhrberg, Wellington Women Lawyers' Association on the day the bill passed its first reading. Photo: RNZ / Emma Hatton

By getting these changes right in the courtroom, I believe we will start to see improvements for survivors outside the court system. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of sexual violence is reported to police. Not every survivor wants their 'day in court,' as this decision is complex and often involves our families. But these changes signal a move to purposefully make the court process less harmful and fairer for survivors of sexual violence, which helps more survivors feel like this is a real pathway for them to pursue.

These are bold and necessary changes that are long overdue. Judges, who set the culture of their courtrooms, are going to lead these changes. I am hopeful that they have a clear framework and the right training and support to contribute to a justice system that does no more harm.

Data recently released from MOJ showed that over the last four years, only 31 percent of sexual violence reports make it into court, and just 11 percent of these cases result in a conviction. I am interested in the 69 percent of survivors who worked up the courage to report to police, then exited the process at that same stage.

There are many valid reasons why a survivor would choose not to progress, but fear of harmful questions; fear of being forced to talk about what happened to you in front of the person who did it; fear that juries care more about what you were wearing, your past sexual behavior, or what you had to drink are not good enough reasons for the system to fail survivors.

It must be changed so that more survivors can make choices that are right for them.

I am hopeful about what these changes can mean for the healing and long term recovery of survivors. Often therapeutic and practical support for survivors has to be increased to prepare, hold, and recover from the impact of court alongside the impact of the sexual violence itself. While this will not magically make the process easy for survivors, I hope to see a reduction in the harm the system creates, leaving survivors better able to cope and focus on their own journey to healing and wellbeing.

* Kyla Rayner is an agency manager at Wellington Rape Crisis

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