Following interstate and national advocacy from 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame, the ACT Government will change the name of the crime “maintaining a sexual relationship with a child” to “persistent sexual abuse of a child”.
ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury introduced the change into the ACT Legislative Assembly today (Thursday, 10 February) as part of a broader package of reform intended to strengthen family violence laws.
Ms Tame called for the change at the Meeting of the Attorney-Generals on 12 November 2021. She’s publicly said that in her own circumstances, media reporting around her abuse used the term ‘relationship’ which was misleading and diminished the reality of what had occurred.
Ms Tame was groomed and sexually assaulted multiple times by her 58-year-old teacher when she was 15.
“I was struck by Ms Tame’s powerful advocacy last November,” Mr Rattenbury said. “We had very clear feedback from Ms Tame that it’s an inappropriately named offence – it implies a relationship with a degree of consent which is not possible with a child.”
In her address to the National Press Club this week, Ms Tame commended Mr Rattenbury for introducing the legislative changes to the Assembly after her advocacy last year.
“We still have so much work to do,” she said.
The ACT is one of four jurisdictions where the crime is still called either “maintaining” or “engaging” in a sexual relationship. The other jurisdictions are South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Mr Rattenbury encouraged other states and territories to also move quickly on the issue, given it’s a relatively simple technical legislative change.
“It’s been spelt out to us in black and white terms the difference this can make to victim-survivors,” he said.
A number of other measures will also be introduced with the Family Violence Legislation Amendment Bill 2022.
Mr Rattenbury said the package of reforms intended to do two things.
“We want to make very clear and reinstate that there is no place for violence in family and relationships and this government condemns it and we want to make the process easier for victim-survivors,” he explained.
As well as legislative changes, work is ongoing to make the criminal justice system more easily accessible by victim-survivors.
“Victim-survivors have shared their lived experiences and, too often, the criminal justice process is a re-traumatisation that victim-survivors endure,” Mr Rattenbury said.
The bill also sets out an aggravated offence scheme that will expand penalties for certain offences when committed in the context of family violence.
Some aggravated family violence offences will also be added to the list of offences that would disqualify someone from obtaining a Working with Vulnerable People check.
It will also limit cross-examination on the contents of Victim Impact Statements, including in other proceedings.
Lastly, the bill will create a legislative requirement to review the Family Violence Act 2016 every three years.
“This will be an evolving space of the law, and I think it’s fair to reflect that as these issues are getting greater public ventilation, as they are better understood, we will need to continue to evolve the law to reflect this,” Mr Rattenbury said.
Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee released an exposure draft bill last year under which family violence would have been made an aggravating offence.
Ms Lee welcomed the Attorney-General’s bill but said it would be considered on its merits.
“It is vital that our laws and legal system are set up for the purpose of preventing and eliminating domestic and family violence,” Ms Lee said.
“Unfortunately, our existing laws do not adequately recognise the evil that is family violence and, as such, there is a concerning disconnect between what results from our court system and what the community expects.”
The bill will be referred to the ACT Legislative Assembly Committee on Justice and Community Safety.
If the committee decides it doesn’t need to be examined, Mr Rattenbury hopes the bill can be debated at the end of March or the beginning of April.