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The government continues to reform the criminal justice system’s response to child sexual abuse, including institutional child sex abuse. The government recognises the importance of providing support to victims and survivors involved in the criminal justice system and is working to ensure the system operates in the interest of justice, and protects the rights of the complainant and the accused.  

Prosecution and witness reforms

Victim-centric responses

Victoria Police provides a victim-centric response to all victims and survivors of sexual offences through its specialist Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigative Teams (SOCITs).

SOCIT investigators focus on the wellbeing of the victim and safety of the community as their first priority. A primary investigator handles the investigation, providing the victim with a main point of contact within Victoria Police. They ensure the victim is linked to support agencies that offer ongoing specialist support, and keep the victim informed of the progress of the investigation.

Victoria Police has improved how its services are described and communicated to victims by amending the Reporting Sexual Offences to Police booklet. This booklet is provided to victims of sexual offences to explain what they can expect from police, the investigation process and the options that are available to help them consider their decision to report. Victoria Police has also amended the service standards provided to victims in the Victim’s Guide to Support Services and the Criminal Justice System.

Victoria Police is updating relevant policies and procedures where necessary to align with the recommendations from the Royal Commission. All relevant training packages are being reviewed to ensure institutional child sexual abuse, in addition to sexual offences and child abuse more broadly, is captured.

Intermediary Pilot Program

The Intermediary Pilot Program (IPP) commenced on 2 July 2018. Intermediaries facilitate communication when a police officer is interviewing a vulnerable witness, or at a criminal hearing to help witnesses communicate evidence to the court. Intermediaries are available for victims of sexual offences and witnesses in homicide matters who have a cognitive impairment or are under 18 when charges are laid.

Forty-one allied health professionals have been appointed to a panel of intermediaries. An intermediary is matched according to the specific needs of complainants and witnesses. In 2018-19, IPP received 387 requests for an intermediary. As at 30 June 2019, IPP had matched 311 of these requests, including 177 requests from police and 134 for court matters.

The initial IPP sites included courts in Melbourne’s CBD (the Supreme Court, County Court, Magistrates’ Court and Children’s Court) and four police SOCIT locations (Box Hill, Fawkner, Frankston and Geelong). The pilot has now been extended to three additional SOCIT locations (Knox, Bendigo and Moorabbin) and two additional court locations (Geelong and Bendigo).

Police and judicial officers receive training on how to utilise intermediaries. The IPP has contributed to the SOCIT Brief Quality Assurance Course at the Victoria Police Academy as well as the delivery of training by the Judicial College of Victoria.

Case Study 1 - Intermediary Pilot Program

Crystal* is a 20 year old woman who had alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by an adult associate from the age of 13. The court appointed an intermediary to assess Crystal’s communication needs and to provide recommendations to ensure her evidence would be as complete, coherent and accurate as possible. As a young person with an intellectual disability and mental health issues, Crystal faced significant barriers in being able to communicate to the best of her ability in the court environment.

An informal assessment took place near Crystal’s home and was conducted over two sessions to ensure she was comfortable with the intermediary. An assessment report was prepared which included a number of recommendations that were discussed at a ground rules hearing. The judicial officer accepted all the recommendations and subsequently made rules related to the length and timing of Crystal’s evidence, providing her with regular breaks, allowing her to cover her face and to turn away from the camera, and ensuring that questions were simply phrased. Provision was also made for Crystal to use visual communication aids including a visual timeline.

The intermediary recommendations ensured that Crystal was able to give clear and coherent evidence. She left the remote witness facility triumphantly exclaiming “I did it!”

*the name has been changed to de-identify the person

Dedicated Victims Services

The Victorian Government is increasing the capacity of the Victims of Crime Helpline to support victims of crime by providing telephone support, assessments for referrals to the Victims Assistance Program and referrals to other services. An immediate response framework is being developed to assess how victim services respond to major critical incidents within the Victorian Government’s emergency management framework. Finally, improvements have been made to information communication technology capabilities for the victim service system to better monitor service demand and emerging client and service needs.

The Victorian Government is bolstering the Child Witness Service, by recruiting new staff to meet rising demand from the increased number of hearings, and to provide specialised support and reduce trauma for victims and survivors and their families.

Ms Fiona McCormack, former CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, commenced in the role of Victims of Crime Commissioner in July 2019. The Commissioner received new powers in November 2019 that are aimed at strengthening compliance by criminal justice and victim service agencies with the Victims Charter Act 2006.

The Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) has implemented many new initiatives and continues to work to reduce the risk of re-traumatisation of victims. Following a pilot in 2017, OPP has now embedded Victim and Witness Assistance Service social workers within all legal practice trial divisions to provide better information and support to victims.

In 2018, OPP engaged the Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ) at RMIT University to conduct research into victims’ experiences of being consulted during the prosecutorial process. CIJ was asked to identify areas where OPP could improve the way it communicates with victims and recommend practical solutions to improve outcomes for victims. The report by CIJ was published in May 2019, and OPP accepted all five recommendations. These recommendations include developing a best-practice guide for communicating with victims throughout the course of a prosecution, and ensuring that individual justice needs are considered when consulting with victims about resolution decisions. For example, when OPP intends to discontinue a prosecution or accept a plea of guilty for a less serious charge.

OPP is committed to continuing its Victim Support Dog Program after a successful pilot in late 2018 in which OPP obtained its own support dog, Suzie. Suzie interacts with victims and witnesses before court appearances and case conferences, and can sit with victims when they give their evidence from a remote witness room, to provide comfort and support. This assists in reducing trauma for victims and witnesses. Child witnesses and sexual assault victims are given high priority for the Victim Support Dog Program (83 per-cent of matters in which Suzie provided support involved sexual assault).

Case Study 2 - Victim Support Dog Program

OPP’s court support dog Suzie was requested to provide support to a teenage survivor giving evidence in a case in which her male carer was alleged to have committed multiple sex offences against her.

The survivor, Molly*, travelled to Melbourne from regional Victoria to give evidence at a special hearing. There was an immediate connection between Molly and Suzie, who spent time with her in the waiting room of the remote witness facility and accompanied her into the room she gave evidence from.

An intermediary, who was also on hand to support Molly, said she could not express in words the difference Suzie made with helping Molly give evidence.

“She (Suzie) just lowers the energy in the room,” the intermediary said. “Molly did a really good job.”

A case worker who travelled to Melbourne with Molly was full of praise for the social worker handling the case and recognised the impact of Suzie.

“If you do this to help all the young people that come through the door then you are doing an amazing job and are a credit to not only your organisation but to yourself as well,” the case worker said.

“From the separate room for Molly to compose herself and your patience, encouragement and support not to mention the awesome Suzie and her handler. Thank you very much on an outstanding job.”

*the name has been changed to de-identify the person.

Protections for giving evidence

Recorded evidence and alternative arrangements

The Victorian Government is improving the quality of audio-visual links in the Supreme, County and Magistrates’ Courts of Victoria. These upgrades will ensure that vulnerable witnesses are able to give their evidence by video and audio recording of evidence and generally only need to be cross examined in court once, in order to minimise trauma. The Victorian Government is working to:

  • improve the reliability and quality of audio-visual links to a further 28 Magistrates’ Courts and 26 police stations;
  • upgrade the Supreme Court audio-visual technology in all courtrooms. A number of courtrooms have already been upgraded and the project is expected to be complemented by June 2021. This will significantly improve the ability for high definition recording of all court proceedings as well as the display of evidence; and
  • provide 148 video conferencing units to Victorian courts, which allow for the separation of vulnerable witnesses from accused persons when giving evidence.

Prosecutorial practice

Victoria Police has implemented a number of reforms to improve its prosecution practices. These reforms include the introduction of an early case allocation model in Melbourne to ensure early allocation to a prosecutor who will follow the case from the beginning to the end of the process. This will ensure a better experience for victims.  Victoria Police is now considering extending the model to regional areas.

Victoria Police also implemented amendments made to the Victims Charter Act 2006 and Victims of Crime Commissioner Act 2015 in November 2019, to improve communication with victims throughout the investigation and court process. For example, prosecutors and informants will now discuss potential downgrading of charges with victims and survivors prior to the decision being made.

Reforms to Criminal Law

Child sexual abuse offences

The Royal Commission recommended that a failure to report offence should not exempt religious confessions. The Victorian Government implemented this recommendation in the Children Legislation Amendment Act 2019, which was enacted by the Victorian Parliament on 18 September 2019.

Under the Children Legislation Amendment Act 2019, religious ministers must report or disclose relevant information that was received in confession under both mandatory reporting laws in the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 and the failure to disclose offence in the Crimes Act 1958. This important legislation also provides that the religious confessions privilege in the Evidence Act 2008 does not apply in proceedings for the failure to disclose offence or the failure to make a mandatory report offence.

The Council of Attorneys-General (CAG) established a working group on confessional privilege, which was led by New South Wales. The Victorian Government participated in the working group, which aimed to develop a harmonious approach to Royal Commission recommendations relating to confessional privilege, where possible. The working group reported back to CAG out of session in September 2019. At the CAG meeting in November 2019, participants agreed to consider the application of certain principles in their respective legislation.

The remaining recommendations on criminal laws relating to child sexual abuse offences require further consideration by the Victorian Government before a final decision can be made.

Tendency and coincidence

The Royal Commission recognised that one of the most significant issues affecting criminal justice in child sexual abuse cases is how the criminal justice system deals with allegations of sexual offending against an individual by multiple children. The Royal Commission made several recommendations relating to the admissibility of tendency and coincidence evidence, to facilitate greater cross admissibility of evidence and more joint trials.

The Victorian Government is participating in a CAG working group, which is considering the test for admissibility of tendency and coincidence evidence in the Uniform Evidence Law. CAG has approved a draft Model Bill reflecting the working group's proposals, after undertaking consultation with judicial, legal and other stakeholders across jurisdictions about the proposed reforms. 

Reducing delay

The Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) has been asked to consider whether Victoria should maintain, abolish, replace or reform the way a person is committed to stand trial, as well as best practice for supporting victims and means of reducing trauma to victims and witnesses. VLRC will consult widely in undertaking its review, including with courts, government stakeholders, the legal profession and victims’ groups. VLRC will deliver its report by 31 March 2020.

Improving professional responses

Judicial College of Victoria

The Judicial College of Victoria (JCV) has undertaken a range of activities in 2019 to assist judicial officers to understand the impacts of trauma, including child sexual abuse. In June 2019, JCV conducted a one-day program ‘Insight into Trauma’, which aimed to assist judicial officers develop a trauma-informed approach to courtroom management.

In August 2019, JCV launched its new guide for judicial officers Victims of Crime in the Courtroom. The guide is accessible to both the judiciary and broader legal profession. It includes information on the effects of trauma and provides guidance for judicial officers and court staff when interacting with victims. In 2019, as part of its forensic evidence seminar series for judicial officers, JCV included a seminar on injury investigation and reporting of child abuse including child sexual abuse, abusive head trauma and patterns of bruising.

Training has been delivered on issues relevant to Children's Court practice to all new Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) Melbourne Children's Court lawyers, VLA lawyers engaging in the youth crime ‘Professional Support and Development’ pilot (commenced April 2018), and some regional lawyers. The training included information about the impact of trauma in general as well as the specific impact of child sexual abuse on both children and, in later life, adults. 

All new VLA youth crime lawyers and other lawyers funded by VLA are required to attend youth crime foundation workshops, which include a component on the impact of trauma, and child sex abuse issues (including from the perspective of children who have engaged in abusive sexual behaviours). In 2019, three workshops were run for VLA staff and three workshops were run for other lawyers funded by VLA. VLA criminal lawyers have also been provided with training and resources on the use of intermediaries and ground rules hearings, which apply to child witnesses in sex cases.

Reviewed 22 June 2020

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