12 March 2021
To Whom it May Concern,
Strategy for the prevention of violence against women and children
Proposal for urgent National Summit and agenda of immediate reforms
There is a serious gap between rhetoric and reality regarding sexual violence in Australia.
Each year it is estimated there are between 20,000 to 40,000 rapes and sexual assaults. However, only 6,500 charges are laid and 300 findings of guilt and guilty pleas each year.
This equates to a 1.5% conviction rate but is likely worse.
The implications of this for justice and safety are terrifying. There is little wonder that women do not have faith in this system.
Women’s Legal Services provide specialist legal advice and wrap-around support for thousands of disadvantaged women and their children. More and more of these women and children are experiencing family violence and sexual assault.
Despite decades of lobbying, governments have failed to make the criminal justice system responsive and safe for victims. In fact, the issue of sexual violence in the community seems to be getting worse. It’s little wonder with so little accountability.
The repercussions of this national failure are now being felt in Canberra, and the federal government can no longer choose inaction. There have been successive failures by governments to make our sexual assault laws and legal system responsive, just and fair for survivors.
Sexual violence is a crime with little accountability and this gives a ‘green light’ to perpetrators to commit further crimes and not change their behaviour.
The Prime Minister and the National Cabinet can show leadership and speed up the pace of reform to address this national crisis.
We recommend the Prime Minster call an urgent National Summit on sexual violence that includes the Commonwealth and all state leaders and relevant Ministers to expedite a new national strategy.
The following actions must be taken in the short term through the National Cabinet and summit:
- Measurable KPIs and targets in National Plan: Amend the National Plan to reduce violence against Women and their Children to include measurable KPIs, targets and outcomes to allow governments to evaluate progress. These could include the ratio of rape and sexual assault charges to guilty findings, family law cases involving family violence, intimate partner homicides, victims accessing legal and social support, or sexual harassment reporting.
- Review sexual violence laws: Immediate commitment in the new National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and children by federal, state and territory to review sexual violence laws (including evidence laws) from a victim’s perspective and draft amendments that improve safety and increase reporting and accountability. The review should consider current state and territory laws, international models and best practice. Law reforms should aim for national consistency and include consideration of affirmative consent, reasonable limitations of the excuse of mistake of fact, admission of contextual evidence of a domestic violence history in sexual violence trials.
- Establish and fund a specialist sexual violence court: Immediate commitment by federal, state and territory governments to develop a specialist sexual violence court as a pilot in Australia with specialist prosecutors and judges, including the incorporation of the legal representation of lawyers for the victim in the process. The pilot must be independently evaluated, and recommendations made for benefit of all states and territories.
- A media campaign on consent and review education on consent: Renewed and larger commitment to a national campaign on consent developed with young people to be run on all media and reinvigorated education approach in schools.
- The need for victims’ lawyers: Fund a national victim legal service program for victims of domestic violence and sexual violence, providing lawyers to assist with information and advice on police and court processes, confidentiality issues and counselling notes, victims assist applications, bail applications. This could be delivered through women’s legal services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s legal services.
- Wrap around support: Fund sexual violence prevention services across Australia to support more women through court processes, including if they choose reporting to police. Support must be delivered up to and including the trial.
- Sexual harassment: Implement the 55 recommendations of the [email protected]: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces.
- Family law safety: Amend the Family Law Act to remove the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility and emphasis on shared care that endangers victims of domestic violence and their children.
- More legal assistance funding for vulnerable women: Fund women’s legal services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s legal services to fully represent domestic violence victims in the family court and to extend their services to other legal areas of need (eg. employ sexual harassment lawyers within women’s legal services for vulnerable women, criminal lawyers to represent domestic violence victims wrongly charged).
It is clear that the current approach has not worked, and the nature and prevalence of violence against women and children is changing. Australia needs to re-examine our response to violence at all levels of government and society and build a support network that ensures no victim will fall through the cracks.
Angela Lynch AM
Chief Executive Officer, Women’s Legal Service Queensland