2 April 2023

More options for reporting sexual assault online to be investigated with amendment allowing live testimony to be recorded

| Claire Fenwicke
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You can currently only report historic sexual assault online in the ACT. Photo: File.

The ACT Government will explore how to make sexual assault reporting more accessible and less traumatic for victim-survivors in Canberra, as the recording of in-court testimony is enshrined in law.

Police Minister Mick Gentleman said the government and police recognise that reporting a sexual assault could be a “daunting and traumatic experience”, and online reporting allows people to report “on their own terms”.

“[We] are committed to working with ACT Police to support victim-survivors who wish to report their experiences in a way that minimises the re-traumatisation to the greatest extent possible,” he said.

Shadow Minister for Women Nicole Lawder originally moved for the online option to be expanded to allow people to report recent sexual assaults and to include the form in more languages by 1 July.

Currently, you can only report sexual assault online in the ACT if it happened more than six months ago.

Mr Gentleman said this was a matter that needed proper investigation to ensure the right mechanisms were in place, as the original timeframe of six months or more was a deliberate choice.

“In matters where a sexual assault occurred six months or more prior to reporting, it’s likely that forensic evidence no longer exists, making it more appropriate to create an option for online reporting,” he said.

“It is widely recognised by law enforcement agencies on a global scale that in-person reporting of sexual assaults is best practice due to the sensitive and often traumatic nature of the matter.

“The human element of reporting in person is a critical component in supporting the victim-survivor to process the emotional and physical traumas associated with these crimes.”

ACT Policing is already considering a range of upgrades to its online sexual assault reporting form.

Ms Lawder welcomed the amendments to her motion, as she wanted the conversation to continue in this area.

“The online reporting option is not intended to replace a police report, it’s meant to be one more avenue for a victim-survivor to be able to pursue in the healing journey, to take back their power and have their voice heard, and we should do whatever we can to enable them to do that,” she said.

“I’m genuinely hopeful that it’s one more piece of the puzzle that we can put into place to assist those vulnerable members of our community who need our support.”

The Government will report back on the results of the investigation by the last sitting day of the year.

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It’s as an amendment to the Justice and Community Safety Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 (the Bill) was passed, allowing for live testimony of alleged victim-survivors of sexual assault, family violence and violent offending to be recorded.

While the recording of complainant evidence appearing via audio-visual link (AVL) in an alleged sexual assault case is allowed, the same consideration wasn’t in place for those who appear in court, meaning their testimony would have to be provided again if the case needed to be retried.

The Director of Public Prosecution Shane Drumgold picked up on the legal anomaly following the mistrial of Bruce Lehrmann, who has maintained his innocence.

The case against Mr Lehrmann was later dropped due to concerns for accuser Brittany Higgins’ mental health.

The chance for complainants to opt out of having their in-court testimony recorded will not form part of new legislation, but it will be explored further.

In his response to committee recommendations on the legislation, Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the amendments had the potential to “significantly improve the experience” of vulnerable witnesses in the justice system.

“A common concern has been that the [criminal justice] system continues to re-traumatise victims,” he said.

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During the consultation process for these amendments, it was noted there were potential failures around securing consent for a complainant’s live testimony to be recorded.

An opt-out approach was suggested, so that consent was automatically assumed for the recording of evidence given live in court, via CCTV or in a pre-recorded hearing.

The approach will now be considered further with stakeholders, which the government noted could also cover any issues or concerns raised during the early operation of the new amendment.

“The essential principle is agency for a victim-survivor while also ensuring the legislation provides a robust system to prevent re-traumatisation of witnesses in related proceedings, appeals, or retrials,” the report stated.

The opt-out approach could be included as part of the Sexual Assault and Family Violence Bill 2023, which is expected to be introduced towards the end of this year.

If you have been sexually assaulted you can contact police on 131 444, visit a police station or hospital. You can also contact the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre on 6247 2525 for support.

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