Victorian Government Passes Bill Affirming Commitment to Victim's Rights in Criminal Proceedings

Wednesday 21 February 2018 @ 10.18 a.m. | Crime | Legal Research

Yesterday, 20 February 2018, the Victorian Legislative Council passed the Justice Legislation Amendment (Victims) Bill 2017. This Bill will now go to the Governor for assent. The object of this Bill is to amend a number of Acts including the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic), the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) and the Criminal Procedure Act 2009 (Vic), with the purpose of improving the way the criminal justice system addresses matters relating to victims of crime.

The importance of this Bill was highlighted by Mr Rich-Phillips in the second reading speech to the Council:

“We have seen in recent years, and the last two years in particular, increased community concern about the level of crime in the general community. We have seen unprecedented increases in violent crimes against the person, crimes which involve near-unprecedented acts such as home invasions and carjackings — things which were never a feature of the Victorian community until very recently. […]

It is important, therefore, that this Parliament responds to those concerns in the Victorian community, that we are responsive to the concerns and experiences of victims and that we are responsive to the concerns of the community more generally. This side of the house, the Liberal and National parties, have been very strong in promoting a number of measures which support victims of crime, work to minimise and deter crime and particularly violent crime in our community and work to address the broad concerns of the community.”

The Bill

There are a number of provisions in this Bill which make significant amendments with regards to the treatment of victims in the criminal justice system. As outlined in section 1 of the Bill:

The purposes of this Act are—

  1. to amend the Crimes Act 1958—
    1. in relation to sexual offences; and
    2. in relation to the destruction of fingerprints, DNA samples and related forensic material and information; and
    3. to make other minor and technical changes; and
  2. to amend the Sentencing Act 1991—
    1. in relation to the presence of certain mitigating factors in the sentencing of an offender in respect of a child sexual  offence; and
    2. to provide for a further historical sexual offence to which Part 2A applies in the sentencing of a serious sexual offender; and
  3. to amend the Criminal Procedure Act 2009—
    1. in relation to sexual offences; and
    2. to provide for ground rules hearings in relation to the questioning of certain witnesses; and
    3. to provide for intermediaries for certain witnesses; and
  4. to amend the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 to provide that an application may be made at any time in respect of an act of violence against a person under 18 years that consists of physical abuse or sexual abuse; and
  5. to amend various other Acts to update and modify references to various sexual offences; and
  6. to make other minor and consequential amendments to various other Acts.

Sexual Offences and Forensic Information

The Bill, Part 2, proposed to make a number of amendments with regards to sexual offences.  As outlined by Mr Pakula in the second reading speech to the Legislative Assembly:

“The bill amends a number of acts to ensure that consistent treatment is given to sexual offences and victims of sexual offences.

Sexual offences are treated as a separate category of criminal offending in many acts. This is because of the seriousness of the offending, and because of its particular impact upon victims. The impact of these heinous crimes cannot be underestimated.

The bill will ensure that where an act provides particular protections or benefits to victims of sexual offences, these protections or benefits apply to victims of all relevant sexual offences.”

Ground Rules Hearings and Intermediaries

Part 4 of the Bill amends the Criminal Procedure Act 2009 to insert a new Part 8.2A – Ground rules hearings and intermediaries. This Part allows for the introduction of ground rules hearings and intermediaries into the Court process.

Ground rules hearings, introduced as a pre-trial process, are proposed as a means of addressing a number of issues for the victim and witnesses, including the manner and content of cross-examination. The purpose of the introduction of ground rules hearings is to identify any particular needs or vulnerabilities of victims and witnesses, particularly in cases of sexual assault or family violence.

Intermediaries, also introduced by Part 4 of the Bill, are skilled communication specialists whose “role is to facilitate communication with the witness (both at the police interview and trial stage). As per Mr Pakula in the second reading speech to the Legislative Assembly:

“Intermediary schemes aim to protect and empower vulnerable witnesses to give their best evidence, ensuring that communication with the witness is as complete, coherent, and accurate as possible, helping to bring offenders to justice. […]

The function of an intermediary is to communicate to the witness questions put to the witness, and to any person asking such questions the answers given by the witness. The legislation will clarify that an intermediary is an officer of the court rather than an advocate for the witness, and will have a duty to act impartially. Intermediaries will be professionals with a range of skills, experience and qualifications. During the pilot phase, the intermediaries scheme will be limited to certain courts.”

Other Amendments

The Bill makes numerous other amendments to a number of Acts to update and improve the treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system.

Some examples are:

  • Part 3 – Amendment of Children, Youth and Families Act 2005: to create restrictions on the publication of proceedings to protect the victims of certain offences
  • Part 5 – Amendment of Sentencing Act 1991: to alter the admissibility of evidence of prior good character determinations for offenders
  • Part 7 – Amendment of Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996: to allow for applications by victims at any time after the occurrence of an act of sexual abuse or physical abuse if the act occurred before the victim turned 18.

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Sources:

Justice Legislation Amendment (Victims) Bill 2017 (Vic), explanatory memorandum and second reading speeches available on TimeBase's LawOne service.

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