Mr GRIMLEY (Western Victoria) (17:57): I move:
That this house: (1) notes that: (a) the 2016 personal safety survey recorded that only one in 10 women who had experienced a form of sexual assault by a male contacted the police to report the offending; (b) the experiences of victims and survivors are not often considered when proposing reforms to Victoria’s legal system; (c) the under-reporting of sexual offending and sexual assault cases is not the result of any individual cause; (d) some victims withdraw sexual abuse charges due to the lack of support or belief in the reporting process and feeling pressure from the offender or family in the process; (e) as the gatekeepers to the pursuit of legal action in a sexual assault, training of sexual offences and child abuse investigation team officers, which considers the complex relationships and trauma experienced by the victim, is fundamental to providing positive outcomes for victims, therefore combatting rates of attrition and non-reporting; (f) it is impossible to determine responses to under-reporting without the centralised recording of reasons for the withdrawal of sexual assault cases; (2) calls on the Andrews government to: (a) create a centralised and publicly available database of victim’s experiences and complaints when pursuing sexual offending charges; and (b) undertake authoritative investigation into the specific causes of low rates of reporting and high rates of attrition at each stage of progress through the legal system and consequent reform recommendations. You do not know what you cannot find, and that is the principle that underpins my motion in this house today. How can you change something or attempt to change something if you do not know the problems that warrant the change? In context, it is essential that we know the reasons why sexual assault cases are being withdrawn, not pursued and not prosecuted, in order to address Victoria’s low rates of reporting and high rates of attrition. As many of you know, I worked for a few years in Victoria Police and for some years in the sexual offences and child abuse investigation teams, otherwise known as SOCIT. It is one of the reasons I joined Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and the reason I stand here today fighting for victims and our kids. To give you a little bit of information about current practice in Victoria Police, the current primary mainframe system used by VicPol is called the law enforcement assistance program, or LEAP. A secondary intelligence database used alongside LEAP is known as Interpose. Both systems hold narratives behind complaints and the details of the offences recorded. It is in LEAP and Interpose that police input data that reflect the status of investigations, and they allow for the court results to be inputted as well once they are done. Generally speaking, LEAP has the following reasons as generic responses as to why charges or investigations are not proceeded with, and they include: ‘complaint withdrawn’ and ‘offender processed’. These codes expose critical gaps in the keeping of police records and the recording of data. Essentially the systems currently utilised by VicPol do not keep accurate records of why any investigations do not lead to an arrest or other formal action. This is particularly concerning in relation to the offences of sexual assault. I actually queried whether LEAP codes could be adapted to incorporate more situations or reasons, but the advice I received from the Chief Commissioner of Police’s office was that this could be misleading. In what way? I am not sure. One of the main issues that underpin the discussion today is the low rate of sexual assault reporting by victims. This should not be a revelation to anyone this place, yet it remains a real and ever-growing problem. If victims of crime, especially sexual crimes, are not coming forward, how are we going to rehabilitate or address this behaviour? This is most important for recidivist offenders, who without proper treatment will continue to offend. Not the least, sexual assaults also have a devastating effect on survivors and their families. This problem of under-reporting obviously builds on a big problem we have in Victoria and Australia more broadly regarding the perceptions of sexual crimes, including that these are taboo to talk about and, more disturbingly, that victims ‘asked for it’, otherwise known as victim blaming. When a sexual assault is reported in the media, we hear at times some people say, ‘Well, they shouldn’t have been walking there at night’ or ‘Well, have a look at what they were wearing’. You rarely hear comments such as, ‘Why did that person sexually assault the other?’; comments almost always turn to victim blaming rather than focusing on the offender who commits the crime in the very first place. An example of why attitudes need to change comes back to a horrible sexual assault in Geelong. It was 2015. A young girl, who in the media report was known as Amy, was gang-raped by three adult men in a park. Several reforms came about as a result of her parents’ strong advocacy and the community outrage, but no convictions were laid—but I will get to that later on. I just wanted to touch on the limited progress in community attitudes towards women, especially young women, in sexual assault and rape charges. After the allegations became public, the details of which I assume many of you know in this place, a Geelong police officer went on ABC radio to answer questions from the community. The first question, bewilderingly, was something to the effect of, ‘What was a young girl doing out there at that hour?’. The officer rightly replied on radio that the first question should be: what were three adult men doing allegedly raping a young girl? This is still a dangerous community attitude that needs to change. Amy’s parents said they had been warned their daughter would be brutalised in the witness stand, which is one reason why many rape reports do not reach court, let alone our police stations here in Victoria. There have been reforms to make the court process more approachable by successive state governments over the past decade, including the Criminal Procedure Act 2009, which restricted the cross-examination of witnesses, including victims at committal hearings; the Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 2018, which followed the 2015 Victorian Law Reform Commission report titled The Role of Victims of Crime in the Criminal Trial Process, where among other things, restrictions were introduced for the cross-examination of intellectually disabled witnesses and child witnesses; and the Labor state government agreeing to adopt the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Family Violence as well. More broadly the introduction of witness screens, support dogs, visual audio recorded evidence statements and intermediaries for children has showed great progress in this space. But I reiterate that this does not mean that things are perfect, and having the knowledge as to why cases are not reported in higher numbers and why other cases do not make it to court is incredibly important if we are to address the continuing rise of sexual offending.
In this case I have mentioned, at the request of Amy and through close consultation with the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP), her parents decided not to pursue the charges, because of the trauma associated with cross-examination by three defence barristers and the likelihood of a very minor sentence being preferred and, if not, the possibility of acquittal. Back to my point about the community outrage, there were no convictions. This was a decision by the victim and one that should be respected; however, this case is not isolated, and this motion affirms a belief that these cases—again, without taking away a victim’s anonymity, or the alleged perpetrator’s, for that matter—should have the specific reasons for attrition reported, not just ‘complaint withdrawn’. A few years after the ordeal, Amy’s mother said this, and I quote:
When Amy researched the conviction rates for rape cases she couldn’t believe they were so low and that the prosecution of sexual assaults was so difficult. She was appalled that only one in 10 reported rape cases got a conviction. This makes you wonder if there are cases that are withdrawn because the victim thinks, or is even informed by police or their lawyers, that the rate of convictions is low. Speaking with Amy’s mother, this is what she said about this motion, and I quote: [QUOTE AWAITING VERIFICATION]
I am contacted by many victims and mothers of victims, some with more horrific circumstances than Amy’s, and they don’t report because the system is so difficult and they will be revictimised, so I think the problem is much larger than the statistics indicate. Nothing major will occur to change behaviours unless there is data which exposes the magnitude of the issue in the same way it did for victims of family violence. An ABC Investigations piece published online in January this year, which many of you have read and which I have circulated prior to this in an email, stated that:
In Victoria, complaints withdrawn soared to one in four in 2018. But without context, how do we know what this means? In the same story Don Weatherburn, a professor at the University of New South Wales, is quoted as saying, and I quote:
That’s obviously a problem because if police don’t keep track of why reports of sexual assault don’t result in legal action, there’s little anyone can do to improve the number of successful prosecutions. Karen Willis, executive director of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, is quoted as saying regarding police reporting data that, and I quote:
It’s a ‘tick a box’— exercise, probably suggesting that it should be more than just that. But this is not a blame game. I am grateful to have met with the new chief commissioner recently, over Zoom of course. In this meeting the general reason for not pursuing the database was that LEAP and Interpose do not support such changes in data input, which may further complicate the extraction of data. Whilst this might be the case, I think this is a reason to pursue changes to Victoria Police databases, data from which is reported to the public in annual reports either by Victoria Police or by the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency. A problem we seem to be currently having in this space is perhaps the communication between our regular police on the beat, senior VicPol personnel who sign off on cases to pursue or ultimately not to pursue and the Office of Public Prosecutions. In my experience and from the feedback I have had from stakeholders, there is continuous decision-making between the two latter groups about which cases should or should not make it to court, as you would expect, but it is not unusual for the informant not to be advised of these discussions. However, there is frustration that the reasons are not public and therefore not scrutinised. I concede that there is the option of victims of crime submitting complaints to the Ombudsman, where the public can lodge complaints about decisions taken by government departments or agencies. However, how does an ordinary person know if their case should or should not have been tested in court? A problem I see is that when an investigation is not resolved in court it is the end of the story, and there is no public knowledge or awareness of why these matters were ultimately not pursued or successfully prosecuted. This data is simply not being collected. On this matter I have to pay an enormous amount of respect and thanks to Patrick Tidmarsh, a criminologist and subject matter expert in this field. Patrick is an industry expert on sexual offending and the investigation of sexual crimes, and his views were the catalyst for this motion before you today. Patrick said, and I quote:
“SOCIT would probably authorise a significant percentage more cases than they do if they didn’t have to second-guess what they thought the OPP would do.”
This demonstrates that there are instances where senior uniformed members probably do not send a file to the OPP because they think it will be sent back with a message, ‘Sorry, we can’t pursue this’, so the evidence therefore is never tested. The idea of a database to contextualise attrition has been called for or suggested since 2006 in New South Wales, where the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reported the need to have further context or explanation around reasons for withdrawal. I quote:
In cases that are cleared without any charges being laid, police commonly include a notation on their system such as arrest not desired or no formal action in relation to the suspected offender. These descriptors, however, provide no insight into why the offence was cleared but criminal proceedings not commenced. The report identified a number of key questions in this space. In particular:
What are the precise reasons why police and prosecutors do not commence criminal proceedings? This data is key as it is essential to understand the reasons underlying the closure of an incident without the initiation of criminal proceedings. The findings of the report go on to say that:
This could be achieved by … tracking cases from the reporting of the incident through to conclusion to assess the precise reasons for the decisions made at various stages— and by routinely recording this data on their law-enforcement databases. Put simply, in order to improve the reasons for high attrition we need to understand the reasons for attrition at all stages of the criminal process. It is really important to note that reporting of sexual assault has gone up significantly in the past decade or so, and I am certainly not trying to hide from that fact. In the 2012 calendar year the number of sexual assaults reported was just under 9000, and in the 2016 calendar year, it was just under 30 000 according to the Crime Statistics Agency. This trend is extrapolated to and can be linked as a result of the royal commission, changing community attitudes towards assault and modern campaigns such as #MeToo. But attrition rates are still over 90 per cent, and that is the problem. The reference in this motion to low rates of reporting alludes to the fact that the data out there suggests that almost nine out of every 10 aggravated sexual assault incident in the last 10 years did not result in contact with the police according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. On this note, mentioning how much sexual assault reporting has increased by way of real numbers it would be remiss of me, especially as a former sexual offences and child abuse investigation team detective, to stand here and not advocate for more funding and training for SOCIT officers. Their specialist training, their ability to deal compassionately with survivors of sexual assault and their investigation skills are to be commended, but they are only human and can only handle a certain workload—and I can surely attest to that. I absolutely implore the government, as a sidenote, to consider this. I also want to place on the record that I recognise that not all complaints withdrawn are necessarily a bad thing. With some modern approaches to mending relationships and restorative justice practices we may see victims withdraw complaints under mutual agreement with the accused, and I do not see this as a bad thing at all. But again I come back to the point that by having data collected with this information we can read into these statistics and narratives more, which is the important point. Again, this is all about information sharing and gathering rather than punishing people or, in this instance, vilifying someone for getting back with their partner. One of the final things I will say is that we can always be assured that where there is publicity of something, scrutiny is able to follow. So, if this motion is supported, I hope it puts some onus on the government bodies and parties involved to, firstly, increase the level of information used when recording and reporting on sexual assault crimes and, secondly, carefully consider ways to reduce Victoria’s high attrition rates. Lastly, I did not stand up here today with a bill or a specific model about who should report what, when and how often, because the truth is I do not have access to all the information that I would need to make those decisions. That is why I am actively seeking to work with the government on this, to recognise that there is still massive under-reporting of sexual assault and high attrition rates. Part (2) of this motion asks the government to create this database after investigating and reporting on the causes of under-reporting and high attrition rates, and I hope we can work together on this. This is also with the caveat that identifying factors are not to be published in that instance. I also note that there has been an amendment circulated by Mr O’Donohue. I do not think it has been formally circulated in the chamber but via the emails that I have had a look at. I have certainly had a look at the amendment, which we are not totally averse to, but I can talk on that later if I have time. In summing up I encourage the support of this chamber so that we as decision-makers can be better equipped with the knowledge to make appropriate reforms to our system with regard to the experiences of sexual abuse survivors, because at the end of the day you do not know what you cannot find, and once we have this information in front of us we can make better decisions. It is about the protection and support of victims of sexual offences. I look forward to hearing the other contributions in this place on this matter, and I commend this motion to the house.