Reporting sexual assault and criminal proceedings

Contributed by Penny Pestano and Chrystina Stanford and current to January 2018

There are many people who decide not to report to police for a range of reasons, not least because it can be very difficult to come forward and talk about what has happened, particularly when the person who committed the offence is someone who is known. It is important to know however, that it is a person's right to report any experience of sexual assault to police if and when they are ready, and they can have support from a trusted friend, family member or another support person, such as a counsellor/advocate from the CRCC.

Police Who Investigate Sexual Offences

In the ACT there are special police detectives in the A.F.P Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Team (SACAT) who are specially trained in taking statements from and understanding the specific issues faced by victims of sexual assault and child abuse. SACAT officers investigate all sexual offences against children in the ACT which are reported to police. They also investigate sexual assaults and a range of other sexual offences against adults, particularly those which carry the heaviest penalties upon conviction. There are, however, a number of sexual offences - such as acts of indecency - which are often investigated by General Duties Police.

Meet and Greet with the Police

If you have experienced any form of sexual assault in the ACT and you are considering making a report but are unsure, you can meet with police to discuss the reporting process before deciding on whether you would like to proceed with making a formal statement. You can have support from someone at this meeting, if you wish; a worker from the CRCC can offer support and advocacy and help explain the processes during your meeting.

Making a Police Complaint

Some people who make a report to police do so within a few hours or days of experiencing sexual assault and others report weeks, months or years after the event(s). There is no statute of limitations in the ACT regarding sexual offences, which means it does not matter how long ago a sexual assault took place, it can still be reported to police.

During a police statement, victims will be asked to describe in as much detail as possible what happened to them, including information about the person who sexually assaulted them, anything the perpetrator said at the time of the incident(s) and when and where the incident(s) took place. Police questions are designed to obtain as much information from you as possible at the time so no important details are left out, and the need for supplementary statements is minimised. The police will also require sufficient details to help establish the nature of the incidents and the number of charges. It is important that victims tell the police in their own words as much about the events leading up to and surrounding the incident(s) as well as the fine detail of the actual incident(s). Even details which might seem unimportant at the time may in fact be important in the investigation.

Talking about what happened in detail can be a difficult experience, if you are considering making a statement, it is important you know that unless you would prefer to make the statement alone, you have the option of having a support person there with you, someone who believes you and is aware of your feelings and needs. As part of CRCC's memorandum of understanding with police, A CRCC counsellor/advocate will be contacted to offer support to all victims of sexual assault before, during and after they make a statement, unless the victim prefers to make the statement without CRCC support.

As a victim of crime, it is important you know that you are not responsible for the offences perpetrated against you and you have the right to phone someone for support, leave the premises at any time and if you need to, you are able to take breaks during the statement. You are also able to take an extended break and complete the statement later in the day, the following day or some time thereafter if you are unable to complete it at the time.

Making an Informal Report

Some people do not wish to make a formal statement to police as they do not wish to engage with any court proceedings, but would still like to report what has happened to them so the incident(s) can be recorded by police. Whilst police do not investigate informal reports, the information provided to them may be used for police intelligence purposes. Making an informal report does not mean that a person is unable to make a formal statement at a later date.

The Investigation

The formal statement provided to police will be used to inform the police investigation. Depending on how long ago the incident took place, the police may attend the location where the offence(s) took place to collect evidence. They may also take statements from any witnesses or others who may have information pertinent to the case. In some cases, police seek to obtain additional evidence which may include documents, telecommunications records, closed-circuit television footage or other evidence that is available and relevant to their investigations. The investigation may take several weeks or months depending on the amount of evidence and difficulty in collecting it.

People who make contact with SACAT will be provided with the contact details of the investigating officer(s) and the police Victim Liaison Service. Victims are welcome to contact one of the Victim Liaison Officers or police officers if they have questions regarding police processes relevant to their case.

The Brief of Evidence and Department of Public Prosecutions

The police will compile a brief of evidence including the victim's statement, the statements provided by any other witnesses and other important information obtained during their investigation. This brief of evidence is reviewed, and the police will liaise with the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a prosecution.

When is There Not Enough Evidence

In those instances, where it is deemed there is insufficient evidence to proceed with court, it is important that you get support to process the impact of this news. Just because it is not able to proceed does not mean that people do not believe that you were sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, there are many cases where there simply was not enough information to lead to a successful prosecution so the case is unable to proceed.

Criminal Proceedings

In sexual assault trials in the ACT, a person's police statement is used as the 'evidence in chief'. This means that the written or recorded (and transcribed) statement given to the police is used as the main evidence from the victim and it is used in criminal proceedings as the basis for cross-examination. There can be a substantial wait - one year or more - between the time of giving the statement and when criminal proceedings take place. There are usually a number of court proceedings, such as case management hearings which take place in relation to the case which victims are not required to attend. In the ACT sexual offences are often heard first in the Magistrates Court via a committal hearing. Whilst victims can be called upon to attend the committal hearing, generally they take place as 'paper committals', in which the police brief of evidence is presented without the need for the victim (primary witness) to attend.

Support During Criminal Proceedings

It is important to know that any person who has experienced sexual assault can have support before, during and after court proceedings. A worker from the CRCC can offer support to you if you would like.

Survivors of sexual assault usually find going to trial difficult, particularly the cross-examination. There are some tips which you can keep in mind which may help you in responding to questions in court:
  • Consider each question;
  • Take your time to answer;
  • If you don't understand the question, you can say so or ask for the question to be repeated;
  • If you don't know the answer to a question, you can say so;
  • Only answer the question;
  • If you become distressed, you can ask for a break;
  • Speak clearly;
  • Don't go into unnecessary explanation;
  • Remember to keep breathing.
(Justice and Community Safety Directorate, 2013a)

Workers at the CRCC are able to explain more about the court process, offer support in preparing for court and accompany you to court if you would like support during the proceedings, or if you prefer, offer a referral for support with another agency. Having support can help make the process less intimidating.

Protection Orders

If you are concerned that the person who assaulted you or someone they know may try to contact and/or harass you, you are able to apply for a Personal Protection Order (PPO) or Domestic Violence Order (DVO) through the Magistrates Court (see Personal Protection Orders or Domestic Violence Orders).

You can attend the Magistrates court from Monday to Friday to apply for an order. Bail conditions can also cover similar restrictions for those offenders who have been found guilty. You can contact CRCC if you would like some more information about obtaining an Order or would like to discuss support in this process.

Victim Registers

Victims of sexual assault can provide their contact details to the relevant victim's register to obtain administrative information regarding the offender who was sentenced for the crimes committed against the victim. There are two victims' registers, one for victims of adult offenders and one for victims of juvenile offenders and they are overseen by ACT Corrective Services. Through the victims' register, where the offender is serving a prison sentence, their victim(s) can receive details regarding the offender, including:
  • The length of the sentence, the offender's parole eligibility date and the earliest release date;
  • The correctional centre where the offender is detained and any transfer of the offender to another correctional facility;
  • Any change in the offender's security classification which may result in the offender being eligible for unescorted leave;
  • Any unescorted leave given to the offender;
  • The death, escape of or any other exceptional event relating to the offender
(Justice and Community Safety Directorate, 2013b)

Registered victims may also provide a written submission to the Sentence Administration Board when the Board are considering releasing the offender.

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