Over the past decade, the issue of sexual assault is one that has needed significant law reform. Sexual assault refers to the criminal offences involving unwanted sexual contact or acts, including unwanted touching, groping, indecent acts of other kinds, and rape. Law reform is the process of reviewing existing laws and introducing changes to them with the aim of improving justice or efficiency. In the issue of sexual assault, justice is particularly important. The state needs to balance the rights of the accused and the interests of the individuals and the community. In recent times, law reform has been motivated because the criminal justice system was failing to deliver just outcomes for the victims and the community.
The Need for Law Reform
The conditions that give rise to the need for law reform relates directly to how the laws are changed. The conditions for law reform in the area of sexual assault involve providing victims with fair outcomes and higher satisfaction, particularly in the conviction rate of these crimes. Sexual assault offences are the least reported crimes in NSW, with only 15-20% being reported in 2004. Out of the reported offences, an estimated 2% were convicted. Even being compared to all other categories of crime it is a small conviction rate. These conditions gave rise to the need for law reform, and research into why both the rate of reporting the crimes, and the conviction rate were so low. ‘Why Sexual Violence is Almost Legal’1 gives an insight into the delay and lack of convictions in this area. Research found that many victims believed that they wouldn’t win their case, and so they didn’t report it. In 70% of the cases, the offender is known to the victim which makes the proof even more difficult. This is because the case is usually replying on one person’s word against the other, unless there is convincing physical evidence. Physical evidence for this also needs to be examined, which is an issue if the incident was reported a period of time after it occurred. It is for this reason also that the conviction rate is so low. Another major condition that led to the need for law reform was the lack of state resources in the area of sexual assault. This is to both victims and the doctors involved. Victims revealed that they were ill-served by the state in terms of their practical needs, such as mental health support, translation, accommodation, counselling, and insufficient information about processes for getting help. There was no system established by the state for any of these. In 2004, the NSW Department of Health introduced training for a ‘Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner’ for the victims, instead of doctors. This was seen as a ‘resource efficiency’ measure.
The Agencies of Reform
There are four main agencies of law reform in relation to sexual assault. These are the Criminal Justice Sexual Offences Taskforce (CJSOT), the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, The NSW Bar Association and the media. The CJSOT was put in place to investigate issues relating to sexual assault and the prosecution of these crimes. Their goal was to investigate how the justice system could become more responsive to victims of sexual assault, without undermining the right of a fair trial to the accused. In 2005 they produced 70 recommendations, which led to the passing of a new legislation. The NSW Rape Crisis Centre is probably the most significant of the agencies. It was established by a group of volunteer women. The Whitlam Government funding helped to make the group permanent. They provide support and counselling for anyone involved in sexual assault in NSW. The NSW Bar Association is an agency of law reform in the case of sexual assault as it has rewritten its rules for barristers when cross-examining the victims. This hoped to stop attacks on the victims in the courtroom. The media also plays a crucial role in sexual assault law reform. It does this by publicising cases and influencing the...
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