NT Introduces Bill To Reform Sexual Assault Speech Laws

Friday 6 December 2019 @ 8.56 a.m. | Crime | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure | Legal Research

On 28 November 2019, the Sexual Offences (Evidence and Procedure) Amendment Bill 2019 (NT) (the “Bill”) was introduced to NT’s Legislative Assembly (the “Assembly”) by the Hon Nicole Manison. The Bill was immediately referred to the Legislation Scrutiny Committee for report by 24 March 2020. The Bill proposes amendments to:

  • Sexual Offences (Evidence and Procedure) Act 1983; and
  • the Youth Justice Act 2005.

The Bill

ABC News reports the proposed amendments “will allow sexual assault survivors... to share their own stories without fear of prosecution in the Northern Territory”.

Currently, in the NT (and Tasmania), it is a crime to name sexual assault victims, even with their consent, or for survivors to identify themselves as such. The proposed amendments to the NT legislation will help survivors speak out.

The Minister commented “… it's time the Territory's laws were modernised and brought into line with other jurisdictions — this [Bill] will do that”.

Speaking about the the proposed legislation, the Minister said:

“If approved, the changes would mean adult sexual assault survivors could share their stories if they provided prior written consent, had no mental impairments, and did not identify any other alleged victims who had not consented to share their own stories … Victims have a right to be heard in the courts … This Bill works towards ensuring victims have the rights they deserve.”

Ms Manison said the current NT laws have “an important role to play to protect the privacy, safety and welfare of sexual assault survivors, [but] they could also reinforce stigma and shame associated with sexual assault” and that the proposed changes “struck a balance between protecting the privacy of survivors and the right for victims to tell their own stories”.

The proposed amendments include:

  • Sexual Offences (Evidence and Procedure) Act 1983 – substantive amendments to this Act are proposed, including the substitution of sections 6 to 12, which relate to the publication of information that identifies or is likely to lead to the identification of a complainant, or of a defendant in a sexual offence proceeding; and
  • consequential amendments to the Youth Justice Act 2005, including amendment of section 50 to that Act as well as the insertion of a new Part 17, Division 7 “Transitional matters for Sexual Offences (Evidence and Procedure) Amendment Act 2019”.

Comment and Reaction to the Bill

Nina Funnell, a sexual assault survivor advocate, welcomed the Bill and said by not allowing sexual assault survivors to speak freely to the media under their own names, silenced them — which contributed to a sense of powerlessness and increased social stigma. Commenting on this issue, Ms Funnell said:

“It should always be up to the individual survivor to choose if and when they tell their story, if at all. Many choose not to, as is their right, but for those individuals who do want to speak out, they should be able to. Our stories belong to us, and us alone."

Ms Funnell also said that by allowing survivors the opportunity to share their stories could also help educate others:

"When survivors do go public on their own terms, they can reclaim a sense of ownership and control of their own narratives. Speaking out, also breaks down social stigma and encourages other survivors to feel less isolated or ashamed.”

In August 2019, Grace Tame (from Tasmania), won the right to self-identify in the media and was the first sexual abuse survivor in that state to be allowed to do so, but only after Ms Tame applied for an exemption in the form of a court order from the Supreme Court.

Where to Next?

The Bill has been referred to the Legislation Scrutiny Committee (the “Committee”), which will examine the legislation and determine whether it should be passed or amended. The Committee will also consider public submissions, and report back to NT Parliament with its recommendations in March 2020.

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