24 May 2024

'Revised language' possible as ACT Government ponders removing good character references for sexual predators

| Claire Fenwicke
ACT Law Courts facade

The ACT Government is considering potential changes to the law to remove good character references during sentencing for child sex offenders. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The ACT Government has flagged getting rid of good character references for convicted child sex offenders – or at least changing the language.

It follows campaigning by Your Reference Ain’t Relevant to amend a clause of the Crimes (Sentencing) Act 2005 (ACT) which advises the court on sentencing child sex offenders.

It outlines that the court “must not reduce the severity of a sentence it would otherwise have imposed on an offender because the offender has good character, to the extent that the offender’s good character enabled the offender to commit the offence.”

The campaign wants to delete the last 15 words of that clause.

As part of a formal government response to an e-petition on this issue, Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury agreed it was “timely” to consider what reform to the ACT’s laws could make the sentencing process more trauma-informed.

“I recognise the significant impact the presentation of ‘good character’ references during sentencing of child sexual abuse offenders has on victim-survivors,” he said.

“Our criminal justice process relies on victim-survivors to not only report but share their experience of these heinous acts of abuse and they should not have to endure further trauma as a result of their participation in this process.”

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The government has already undertaken some consultation in this area, with some stakeholders already expressing concerns.

Another roundtable with justice stakeholders and advocates has now been set up to discuss reform options.

Mr Rattenbury said it would look at what changes could be implemented which aligned with the objectives of sentencing, addressed the concerns raising by those with lived experience but also made sure the changes were compatible with the human rights of all persons in the criminal justice system.

“Options to discuss could include, for example, considering revised language (moving away from the concept of ‘good character’) or reviewing court processes to mitigate the risks of re-traumatisation for victim-survivors,” he said.

The government is already working through implementing recommendations from:

  • the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Steering Committee’s Listen. Take action to prevent, believe and heal report 2021 (the SAPR Report), including improving the training of legal practitioners, law enforcement personnel and judicial officers
  • the Board of Inquiry into the Criminal Justice System, which highlighted areas where reform was needed to improve the system and mitigate unnecessary trauma on victims of sexual violence
  • the Final Report of the Sexual Assault (Police) Review, specifically on improving the experience of victim-survivors when reporting to police.

The use of good character evidence in sentencing is also being discussed nationally as part of this year’s Standing Council of Attorneys-General’s forward work plan.

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Your Reference Ain’t Relevant campaign co-founder Harrison James said the roundtable discussion was a “crucial opportunity” to drive change.

“This roundtable signifies a crucial milestone in our campaign’s trajectory, and I sincerely hope the legal community, the government, and survivors can all come together in solidarity and commit to legislative reform,” he said.

“It’s time to forge a path forward that ensures no other survivor of child sexual abuse suffers the trauma of having their experiences dismissed and invalidated by irrelevant character references.”

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