Sexual assault victims: the justice system is failing us

Submissions to the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce (WSJT) graphically depict the despair felt by many sexual assault victims navigating Queensland’s criminal justice system.

The Taskforce released its third discussion paper in February, seeking public submissions and community feedback on women and girls’ experiences across the criminal justice system as
victim-survivors of sexual violence, and also as accused persons and offenders.

Feedback is informing the second Taskforce report, to be provided to the Queensland Government on 30 June 2022.

In response to the third discussion paper the Taskforce received 181 submissions ─ 59 from support and advocacy organisations,  legal stakeholders, academics and government agencies, along with a further 122 submissions from people with lived experience of sexual assault, or as accused persons or offenders.

In addition to the 181 responses to the discussion paper, the Taskforce received 125 general submissions from people with lived experience of sexual violence.

Together, these 306 submissions provide a comprehensive account of the experiences of women and girls in Queensland’s criminal justice system ─ what worked and what could be improved.

The Taskforce has travelled across Queensland, holding stakeholder forums, meeting with service providers, community leaders, Government departments and, importantly, hearing first-hand from women and girl victim-survivors of sexual assault. The Taskforce has also visited women’s prisons and a detention centre for young people and met with women and girls who are or have been in custody, learning why they have offended and what might work to stop offending and reoffending.

The Taskforce is currently carefully considering what we have heard. Some of the submissions in response to the Taskforce’s third discussion paper from people or organisations who have agreed to publication are now available on the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce website.

Time after time, submissions from victims of sexual assault and those that support them provide harrowing illustrations of misinformed community and systemic attitudes. The result is that most sexual violence cases are never reported. When a courageous victim does report to police, very few charges ultimately result in a conviction.

“We have heard that at every turn, there are roadblocks to successful outcomes for sexual violence victims. Most don’t report what has happened and for the brave few who do, they often feel they are not taken seriously or treated as if they are the suspect and blamed and disbelieved. For far too many, the criminal justice process is slow, confusing and retraumatising – many victims find it too much and  give up,” Ms McMurdo said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our feedback about women and girls who are charged with criminal offences is that almost all are victims of domestic and family, sexual or other physical violence – and often all three. Many feel that these experiences of abuse and trauma are not adequately considered across the criminal justice system.

“We are hearing that almost all women and girls in custody are victims of physical, sexual and domestic and family violence,” Ms McMurdo said. “Addressing this issue may help stop women and girls offending in the first place and prevent reoffending.”

Once incarcerated, the Taskforce has heard that support to help women break the cycle of offending is limited and doesn’t adequately support them to heal from the violence they have experienced. These women and girls need more support – both in custody and when released back into the community.

“Thank you to everyone who has so generously contributed to our work by taking the time to make these helpful submissions or to consult with us in person – often about intensely personal and painful matters,” Ms McMurdo said.

‘We have submissions from women of all ages, socio-economic backgrounds and locations across Queensland. They demonstrate the extent and prevalence of these different but equally concerning issues confronting women in our criminal justice system, a system largely designed by and for men.”

The Taskforce is now carefully considering the submissions it has received and the outcomes of its consultation as it prepares its next report to the Queensland Government. This final report follows on from the Taskforce’s comprehensive Hear her voice initial report, about how best to legislate against coercive control. The Taskforce will fulfil its terms of reference with the delivery of its final report on the experiences of women across the criminal justice system to the
Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Minister for Women and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, the Hon. Shannon Fentiman, on 30 June 2022.