Police and our justice system have got to pass the pub test and quickly

Illawarra Mercury – Karen Iles

Reading the media coverage of the Police and Department of Prosecutions Inquiry into the handling of the trial of Bruce Lehrmann one thing jumped out at me this week.

The submissions of Mark Tedeschi SC in his representation of Shane Drumgold, the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions. Tedeschi pointed out the “bizzare” approach by police to sexual assault matters and of ACT police “undercharging” sexual assault crimes.

As a nation there has been a collective “shock” at the “traumatic” experience of sexual assault victims when reporting to police and interacting with the court system.

Tedeschi’s submissions rang true for so many who, when they report sexual assault to police, simply are met with an inadequate response – they do not have their matters investigated to the most basic “pass the pub test” standard.

Police in this country do not have a legally enforceable duty of care towards victims of sexual assault – they do not have a legally enforceable duty to investigate. They get to pick and choose who they will help, which rapists to charge and which to ignore. In my local government area 78 per cent of sexual assault reports to police go “unsolved”.

We need to listen to, and believe, the voices of sexual assault victims around this Country. We are speaking loudly, and in huge numbers, about the injustice in police responses and criminal trials.

One in four women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Alarmingly, the picture is getting worse, not better. Young women are now more likely to report experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime with 51 per cent of those born between 1989 and 1995 having experienced sexual violence.

Police reports of sexual assault have increased 33 per cent for women in the last five years. It is the only crime that is growing in Australia. We are just not cutting the mustard as a society.

We simply must increase confidence in our police responses to sexual assault – otherwise why would, or should, women come forward to make a report?

Currently only 13 per cent of women take the courageous step of reporting their rapist to police. Bravo to them and shame on the police officers who then choose not to investigate, blame the victim, or try and dissuade them from making a formal statement.

Only 14 per cent of reports to police ever result in legal consequences for the perpetrator.

Only 14 per cent of reports to police ever result in legal consequences for the perpetrator. For women whose perpetrators and rapists do actually see the inside of a courtroom, who do have to face a jury, albeit sitting silently without going into the witness box themselves, only a fraction get found guilty, and only a proportion have a custodial sentence handed out.

For a victim the experience of trying to hold your rapist to account is gruelling. Many report that our police and criminal trial process is more traumatising than the rapes themselves. This has got to change. Reform of our criminal justice system is urgently needed.

We have all watched in the media, victims of rape spending days in the witness box. Enduring multiple appeals and retrials. We have watched their mental health crumble.

Why would women sign up to do this? Why report to police knowing that, on the remote chance the police and DPP prosecute, this is what you will face?

And after all of this in total – only 0.5 per cent of men who rape women ever face a conviction.

In their wake 25 per cent of women in Australia, over 3 million women, are expected by our society to “get over it” to “put it behind you” while the hundreds of thousands or millions of men who rape women carry on unchecked. Yet many of these crimes carry maximum sentences in our criminal code.

Can you feel my outrage? My outrage for the 3 million plus women in this country who get little or no justice. Would we have this approach for any other crime? Three million murder victims? Three million victims of drunk drivers? Three million victims of punch ups on a soccer oval?

We can start to fix this picture by introducing a legal requirement for police to have a duty of care to victims, to have a legally enforceable duty to investigate serious sexual assaults.

70 per cent of Australians believe our governments should introduce a set of legal minimum requirements for police to investigate reports of aggravated sexual assault. 18 per cent are neutral; neither supporting or opposing. (Essential Research, 7 March 2023).

This reform passes the pub test.

The proposal is with each State and Territory Attorney-General for consideration.

Governments – let’s get moving.

  • Karen Iles is the Principal Solicitor of Violet Co Legal & Consulting. Her campaign www.MakePoliceInvestigate.Org contains more information on this issue.