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Victorian bill aims to make reporting sexual assault and harassment ‘easier’

The Allan Labor government has introduced a progressive bill to Parliament that would make it “easier” for victims and survivors of sexual assault and harassment to report such crimes.

user iconGrace Robbie 17 May 2024 Big Law
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During the week (15 May), the Allen Labor government introduced the Justice Legislation Amendment (Integrity, Defamation and Other Matters) Bill 2024, which could amend 16 different legislations.

The Victorian state government said this amendment will “remove barriers that some victim-survivors face in coming forward and will include other important to modernise Victoria’s justice and integrity system”.

In the proposed legislation, victims of sexual assault and harassment will be protected from defamation lawsuits when reporting crimes to Victorian police. This addresses concerns that current defamation laws have a “chilling effect” on victims and survivors coming forward and making reports.

 
 

If this legislation gets passed, it will also extend the existing defamation defence of absolute privilege to reports made to law enforcement.

The Victorian government outlined how such changes would “protect all Victorians, including victim-survivors, who make a report to police, granting them complete immunity if their alleged perpetrators [try] to bring a defamation suit against them”.

The legislation also aims to enhance Victoria’s defamation laws to better suit the constantly changing online environment. This is done through the bill outlining the responsibilities and obligations of “digital intermediaries, including search engines and social media platforms” when their services are used to publish defamatory material.

Police-issued body-worn camera footage can “continue to be used as evidence in court cases involving a family violence offence or family violence intervention order” through the proposed bill.

The Victorian government has specified that “this evidence can replace the need for victims to make a formal written statement”. However, victims can still submit one if they wish to do so.

Sarah Wainwright, special counsel in Lander & Rogers’ family and relationship law practice, expressed, “Allowing police bodycam footage to be relied on reduces the pressure on victims to recount every detail of the offence, which they are often asked to do repeatedly, and minimises the risk of their evidence being undermined or dismissed.”

Additionally, the bill will “provide the chief statistician with better access to court data”, enabling more “accurate reporting on criminal justice issues and trends”. It also outlined that “electronic signatures are valid in criminal proceedings”, which removes the uncertainty regarding which signatures are admissible.

Victorian Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said: “We know how hard it can be for victim-survivors to report what happened to them – these reforms remove some of the barriers they face in their bravery by coming forward.”

“With these changes, we’re making sure our justice system responds better to serious offending like family violence and sexual assault and is more accessible to all Victorians.”

Hayder Shkara, the principal of Justice Family Lawyers, emphasised the importance of enacting legislation to ensure that victims and survivors of violence feel safe when reporting these crimes.

“It’s heartening to see the removal of barriers and the implementation of measures aimed at safeguarding victims of domestic violence from potential defamation proceedings. These initiatives undoubtedly mark significant progress towards fostering a more supportive and just system,” Shkara said.

However, he expressed how he wishes the government to address the “ongoing concerns surrounding the speed of court processing”.

The feedback that I have received is that waiting for justice while enduring the emotional burden of reliving traumatic experiences over the course of two years or more is incredibly taxing,” Shkara said.

“Timely access to justice is not just a matter of expediency; it’s a fundamental aspect of ensuring the wellbeing and recovery of those affected by domestic violence.”

Sally Nicholes, the founder and managing partner of Nicholes Family Lawyers, outlined how the proposed bill is a “step in the right direction when it comes to supporting and encouraging people to report sexual harassment and assault”.

Nicholes commented: “Given the current climate, laws that empower otherwise vulnerable victim-survivors to report abuse are needed and welcomed by those providing care to the most vulnerable.”

“The Bill recognises and seeks to act on the fact that numerous victim-survivors hesitate to report incidents of sexual harassment and assault, fearing potential defamation actions,” Nicholes expressed.

However, Nicholes highlighted that “the proposed laws will need to balance providing much-needed support to victim-survivors with ensuring that it does not lead to abuse of process through the making of unsubstantiated or false accusations.”

This bill will not be accessible to the public until 28 May, when the second reading occurs.