25 Oct 2016

New court to hear sexual violence cases

6:04 am on 25 October 2016

A new sexual violence court designed to make the justice system less traumatic may mean more people are willing to lay complaints, victim advocates say.

Whangarei High and District Court

The aim of the pilot project is to speed up justice for victims of sexual violence. Photo: Ministry of Justice website

In the pilot project starting in December, district courts in Whangarei and Auckland will set aside courtrooms with specially-trained judges for all jury trials involving serious sexual offending.

About 30 percent of all trials held in Whangarei involve sexual violence - one reason the Whangarei District Court was selected to take part in the pilot.

A specialist court was one of the recommendations of the Law Commission last year, in its report on the judicial responses to sexual violence.

In the pilot, judges will be given specialised training on the "unique dynamics of sexual violence cases", such as the barriers preventing victims coming forward.

If the two-year pilot was successful, the specialist courts would be rolled out across the country.

Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue said the current system for dealing with sexual attack cases was just not good enough.

"Firstly they are too long; second, the processes can be brutalising."

The high volume of trials in the district courts could mean delay after delay, Judge Doogue said.

"In particularly sensitive cases like these it has meant complainants, vulnerable victims and defendants have had to come back on several occasions, so what we're hoping to do is to make sure there is a firm date in place for trial."

Anti-violence campaigner Louise Nicholas said she knew the pilot would be a success, because anything had to be better than how the courts currently operated.

"When I support survivors through the court process, it takes a lot for me not to jump up and down and do something stupid in court, simply because there is so much judgement and theatrics from the defence lawyers," she said.

"It is demeaning of the survivors [when] all they want to do is speak their truth."

Better education was crucial so judges were aware that sexual assault victims behaved differently, Ms Nicholas said.

"It's about judges understanding the nature of the survivor and the trauma they go through - you can get women and men who are upfront and say it how it is, and then on the other hand you can get victims who are upset and struggle to speak in court.

"It's about accepting that and accepting everyone is unique and supporting them through court proceedings," she said.

Rape Crisis spokeswoman Andrea Black said court proceedings for rape victims were horrendous and put people off coming forward in the first place.

"We know that of all the survivors that come to Rape Crisis, there is only a small percentage of people that lay a complaint with the police.

"It's then an even smaller amount that get investigated and go through the court process."

She hoped the new courts would change that.

While the new system is supposed to deliver a faster and less distressing process, Judge Doogue said it would not change the presumption of innocence or the right to present a defence and examine witnesses.

The Law Commission's other recommendations, including alternative ways to give evidence and cross-examine it, could not be included in the pilot scheme, she said.

"They can't be [included] because all of those matters require law changes, and judges are just doing what they can do to improve the courtroom experience within the existing law," she said.

"All the other recommendations, of course, are for the parliamentarians."

Judge Doogue said the goal of the pilot programme was to have sexual violence trials begin within six months of the first court appearance.

The first cases are expected to be heard by mid-2017.

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