Monday, May 27, 2024

Sexual violence Bill welcomed by Ministers

The Minister of Justice and the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence and Sexual Violence have welcomed the Sexual Violence Legislation Bill passing its final stage in Parliament.

The Bill makes changes to the parts of the court process which research shows cause trauma to victims of sexual violence.

“As well as reducing unnecessary harm, the changes will see cases based on relevant information, and not myths about sexual violence, such as a victim somehow asking for it,” Minister of Justice, Kris Faafoi said.

“We know that victims of sexual violence often don’t come forward because they fear the process of seeking justice will end up doing them more harm. Over time, the changes in this Bill will help to address this issue.”

Most of the Bill’s changes were recommended by the Law Commission in 2015 and 2019, and have been called for by experts and advocates. Key changes will:

  • entitle sexual violence complainants to use alternative ways of giving evidence, including by pre-recording their cross-examination evidence in appropriate cases;
  • make sure evidence about a complainant’s past sex life is off limits, unless it is clearly highly relevant; and
  • require judges to talk to the jury to dispel any misconceptions relating to sexual violence (often called ‘rape myths’) that might be brought into a case.

The Bill includes changes to benefit all witnesses, not just those in sexual cases.

It will strengthen judges’ obligations to intervene in questions that they consider unacceptable; taking into account the witness’s vulnerability and the tone of questioning alongside other factors.

It will also make sure witnesses can have specialist help with understanding and communicating in court, for whatever reason they need it. This service is currently only available to witnesses with insufficient English, or a communication disability, the Ministers said.

The Bill has been designed to improve complainants’ experiences in court, while still upholding defendants’ fundamental rights.

“This Bill is an important step in ensuring victims and survivors are not re-traumatised by the Justice System,” Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence and Sexual Violence, Marama Davidson said.

“We have a significant underreporting of sexual violence in Aotearoa, New Zealand. In the development of Te Aorerekura, our national strategy to eliminate family violence and sexual violence, we heard clearly that our systems must be safe and accessible, so people feel supported to seek help and accountability.

“This Bill will help change attitudes and processes that have traditionally normalised or excused violence.”

Minister Faafoi noted that improving complainants’ experiences does not automatically entail restricting defendants’ fundamental rights.

“All of the Bill’s provisions ensure that a judge has discretion to apply them in a way that preserves the fairness of the trial.”

“I know some lawyers have raised concerns about how the Bill will work in practice, and the impact it will have on defendants.

“I am reassured to see similar changes working fairly in other countries, where similar concerns were raised but have not eventuated,” he said.

Some parts of the Bill come into force immediately following Royal assent. Other changes, including around video evidence, will come into effect a year afterwards, or earlier, by Order in Council.

The Government has committed to reviewing the Bill’s impacts, on both complainants and defendants, once the changes have had a chance to bed in.

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