1 September 2023

Safety front and centre in changes to police communication with alleged crime victims

| Claire Fenwicke
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anonymous person speaking with police officer, who is taking notes.

A new bill amendment will change when police officers are required to inform alleged victims if there will be an arrest or charges laid. Photo: ACT Policing.

Alleged victims of crime could soon be given more up-to-date information about the status of their claims to police. The move states it will put “victims’ safety first”.

Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne presented the Victims of Crime Amendment Bill 2023 to the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday (29 August) which has been put together off the back of recommendations from the Sofronoff Report.

The amendments relate to the Charter of Victims’ Rights contained within the Victims of Crime Act 1994.

Ms Cheyne said the charter recognised the limited influence victims could have during the course of an investigation and any proceedings in court.

Victims rarely have lawyers to protect their interests, and the investigation, trial and court processes can re-traumatise victims, particularly women and vulnerable people,” she said.

The law currently requires police to provide victims with updates about changes in the status of an investigation after the change has occurred.

This includes when police decide to obtain an arrest warrant or press charges.

Ms Cheyne said the proposed amendments would bring forward when a victim found out about these changes from ‘after’ to ‘as early as possible’.

“Expressly requiring police to give updates before charging or arresting a person will ensure victims have an opportunity to make representations to police and other relevant agencies to address any concerns they have about their safety,” she said.

“This amendment puts victims’ safety first.

“This bill is an important step in the government’s commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Final Report of the Board of Inquiry, and ensuring the justice process meets community expectations about a growing recognition of victims in the justice process.”

Under the changes, police will still be required to update victims after a change in status of the investigation has occurred.

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Consideration has also been given to what this could mean to alleged victims of domestic and family violence, or other instances where a case could be prejudiced by a victim.

Ms Cheyne outlined that during the course of an investigation, police and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) may decide to lay charges and prosecute a case even if a victim was unwilling to cooperate with authorities.

“In those circumstances, providing an update to a victim that police have decided to charge or arrest the suspect could lead the victim to ‘tip off’ the suspect, causing them to abscond or actively evade police,” Ms Cheyne said.

“The Charter [of Victims’ Rights] addresses this by providing that, where police consider giving an update would prejudice an investigation, police are not required to give the victim an update.”

As for the potential for ensuing court proceedings to be prejudiced, the amendment bill expands the circumstances where police are not required to update a victim.

“Specifically, the bill provides that, if giving an update to a victim would prejudice ‘the matter generally’, which would encompass proceedings or anything else related to the investigation or proceedings, the police are not required to give the victim an update,” Ms Cheyne said.

The Charter of Victims’ Rights, which outlines to justice agencies their obligations to engage with a victim and uphold their rights while navigating the justice system, is up for review in 2024.

Debate on the bill was adjourned.

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Since receiving the report, an implementation committee has been established to put the recommendations into action.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said despite the scrutiny, “millions of opinions” and judgements about the handling of the case against Bruce Lehrmann – which was part of the triggering of the Board of Inquiry following his mistrial* – there was still an important message to note.

“We as a country need to do better in our reporting of these matters, particularly when it comes to alleged sexual assaults and other intimately violent crimes, and recognise the real and significant human impact it has on those involved,” he said.

“The ACT Government encourages Canberrans to keep reporting alleged crimes. The Government’s response to this report will help us to build a better and more robust system that reflects the needs of alleged victims, as well as the presumption of innocence of those accused.”

People impacted by crime can contact the Victims of Crime Commission and Victim Support ACT on 6205 2066 or via VictimSupportIntake@act.gov.au.

* No findings have been made against Mr Lehrmann and he has maintained his innocence.

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Good, but. That is not going to change the lenient sentences and being granted bail by the COURTS, which a defendant-centric as opposed to victim-centric.

Victims of crime v paperwork = government and police obfuscate and hide

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