Push for national reforms in rape cases

December 02, 2022 12:16 PM AEDT | By AAPNEWS
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Advocates are calling for urgent reforms to protect sexual assault complainants from being re-traumatised by court proceedings and say the current system is failing women.

The announcement by the ACT's top prosecution lawyer that he would drop the case against the man Brittany Higgins alleged raped her in 2019 renewed calls to strengthen procedural protections for complainants. 

ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold announced he would not proceed with a retrial of former Liberal Party staffer Bruce Lehrmann because of the impact on Ms Higgins' mental health. 

He said the ongoing trauma associated with the case presented a "significant and unacceptable risk" to Ms Higgins' life.

"This is not limited to the harm of giving evidence in a witness box and rather applies to whether or not the complainant is required to enter a witness box during a retrial," he told reporters. 

Lehrmann was due to face a retrial in February after juror misconduct derailed the first. 

He maintained he had never had sex with Ms Higgins and pleaded not guilty to the charge of sexual intercourse without consent. 

Curtin Law School associate professor Hannah McGlade, who was involved in the 2021 March4Justice protests, told AAP the case highlighted how traumatic court proceedings were for complainants. 

Dr McGlade said legal action could be revictimising and even abusive.

"This system is clearly failing all Australian women," she said.

"This is a major public health issue leading to, in many cases, long-term adverse physical and mental health conditions for survivors whose needs are not being met."

Dr McGlade said the current legal system was not safe and collaboration between experts, advocates, leaders and people with lived experience was needed to develop better processes. 

"The overwhelming majority of women and children who experience sexual assault and rape will never see any form of justice," she said.

"What we need to do is really invest significantly in addressing sexual abuse and assault in a more comprehensive manner."

Greens senators Larissa Waters and Sarah Hanson-Young said Ms Higgins had shown strength and resilience and they would continue to advocate for increased protections for victim-survivors. 

"To end Australia's culture of sexual violence, harassment and abuse we must start by supporting victims to come forward, and dismantling power imbalances and gender stereotypes that deter them from doing so," they said in a joint statement.

"The Greens support the work being done to identify problems with criminal justice responses to sexual violence and strengthen trauma-informed approaches and wrap-around services."

ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury announced in November he was considering law changes to allow recorded evidence from a first trial to be used in a second. 

The reforms would mean complainants in the territory would not be required to give in-person evidence a second time.

A spokesperson for Mr Rattenbury said the territory government remained committed to the reforms "to ensure the consistent treatment of vulnerable witnesses who give evidence during criminal trials in the ACT".

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