Justice Legislation Amendment (supporting Victims And Other Matters) Bill 2020
'This legislation, among other things, permits victim-survivors, both adults and children, to freely self-publish information that is likely to identify them as a victim-survivor of a sexual offence without requiring court approval, except in limited circumstances. The Greens will support this bill'
Dr READ (Brunswick) (10:31): The Justice Legislation Amendment (Supporting Victims and Other Matters) Bill 2020 makes important changes to several justice-related issues, the most sensitive being changes to the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act 1958, which is what I will address today. This act sets out what restrictions apply to the publication of details of court cases. Importantly, this bill intends to change the act to make it clear that victim-survivors, both adults and children, may freely self-publish information that is likely to identify them as a victim-survivor of a sexual offence without requiring court approval, except in limited circumstances.
When researching this bill I noted that the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act was originally passed the same year as the Crimes Act 1958, and even today sections of the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act betray this anachronism. For example, section 3(1)(a) of the act still bans the publication of details from court proceedings regarding:
… any indecent matter … or physiological details … which would be calculated to injure public morals …
So while the act has been amended and modernised many times since it was introduced, it is worth noting how much our society has changed, particularly in response to criminal offences committed predominantly against women. When this law was first passed there had not been a woman in the Victorian Parliament for 11 years and there would not be one for another nine. It would not be until 1996, some 38 years after the passage of the act, that a female judge was first appointed to the highest court in the state. So in considering amendments to these historic justice acts we must also recognise the male-dominated era in which they were created. Perhaps nowhere is this disparity between the law and contemporary society more apparent than in our laws concerning sexual offences. These laws concern offences that are mostly committed against women and children by men, but at the same time the laws were written and approved, enforced and adjudicated upon by men who were never likely to be victims of these offences.
During the 1960s the fight began to change laws that upheld men’s myths and misconceptions regarding the behaviour and sexuality of women, and by the 1980s and 1990s many substantive changes to these laws were beginning to occur. Significant achievements included recognition that sexual offences could occur in marriage, removing the relevance of a victim’s sexual history or delay in reporting an offence, recognising the reliability of testimony from women and children and reforming the issue of consent to counter misconceptions about the silence or absence of physical struggle. The impetus behind all these reforms was largely from the campaigning of women—feminists and victim-survivors—and their work is not complete. This continued tradition of advocacy is what has driven the changes to the law in this bill today. So I want to recognise the work of those advocates who highlighted the problems caused for victim-survivors to tell their stories as a result of the Open Courts and Other Acts Amendment Act 2019, which passed last year. I am glad that the Attorney-General said in her second-reading speech that there is more work to be done on sexual offences, as there is with all violence against women by men. While I recognise that women and children increasingly feel able to report sexual offences, including historical offences from many years ago, too many cases still never reach a criminal court and only a fraction result in conviction.
We must also recognise the desire of family members who wish to honour victims who have died. Too many of these names have been honoured in recent years in Victoria, and too many in or around the electorate I represent, Brunswick. Almost one in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence as adults. Women are being murdered in Australia this year at a rate of more than one per week. But each of these lives now serves as an ongoing reminder of the need to change the toxic attitudes and violence of men towards women in our society.
I have read Nina Funnell’s recent article pointing out the potential unintended consequences of this bill regarding the publication of sexual offence details of victims who have died. I have also read the statement from the Office of Public Prosecutions about why such limitations on publication, including when a person has died, are often at the request of, in this case, family members and designed to prevent their ongoing suffering. Their view, that such details should not be forever hidden but should be protected as the default until a victim or family’s wishes can be confirmed by a court, is also persuasive and quite reasonable.
This is not a matter of taking any one side over another but recognising the singularity of every case and of the individuals involved. Even within families there are differences of opinion on these matters. Therefore the challenge for us as a Parliament is to get the laws right so that they are sufficiently firm to prevent unauthorised additional trauma for victims and family members who wish to remain anonymous while at the same time being flexible enough not to limit the rights of victim-survivors and family members who want to publish their stories.
As the Attorney-General has stated, currently Victorian law prohibits public identification of victims of sexual assault who are deceased, and there is no clear way for families or the media to have that prohibition lifted. I appreciate that the Attorney-General has flagged that this is a complex area of law that is still under review with all stakeholders and that the current provisions are an interim measure until this time. I also believe it is to the Attorney-General’s credit that she has listened to the community, recognised the shortcomings within the laws that passed earlier this year and worked to resolve them. I do not doubt her intention to get all aspects of these laws right.
I also appreciate that the opposition has circulated some well-intentioned amendments to this legislation, and while we share the underlying intention of these opposition amendments—to ensure, that is, that there are no restrictions where it is clear that a deceased person and/or their family would want to be identified as victims of sexual assault—we need more time to consider these amendments and the changes in this bill, particularly the possible effects on families.
Regarding the opposition’s reasoned amendment, once again I think it refers to something that is very important and that I have spoken about today, and that is working with all the stakeholders relevant to a piece of legislation, in this case victim-survivors and their families. It is my understanding that this is precisely what the government is doing and will continue to do with this area of law reform, which is ongoing. We do not see a reason to hold up this important piece of legislation today, so while we will not be supporting all of the amendments today, we will work with the government, the opposition, the crossbench and stakeholders to address potential shortcomings of this bill as it moves to the upper house. I am optimistic that we can work together to bring about the best possible result for our community, and with this in mind the Greens will support this bill.
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