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Victims in court: Judge for yourself

8 11 171
12.01.2019

Our justice system is itself on trial. Can '12 good men and true' sit in judgment on sex crime cases when, as we reveal, juries are more likely to obsess with whether the victim is a virgin and the length of her skirt on the witness stand. Today, our own citizen jury of 12 New Zealanders – men and women, old and young, Māori and Pakeha, experts and judges, lawyers and victims and members of the public – give their verdict on our justice system. The charge: that it brutalises victims of sexual assaults.

THE POLICE COMPLAINT

"J" kept the details of what happened at the sleep-over a secret for almost a decade – but after learning that another young girl had been assaulted by the same man, in that same house, she knew she had to act.

She almost certainly would not do so again.

"I wish I had just kept it in my head and not gone to the police," the Wellington 23-year-old says.

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J's case went to court in October 2018. The accused, the father of a childhood friend, was charged with sexual assault and unlawful sexual connection. J told the court she was 10 years old when he entered the room where she was sleeping in the middle of the night, pressed his erection against her, and touched her genitals under her pyjamas.

Until she stepped into court, J was feeling pretty good about the process. She had no complaints about her dealings with police – they'd been sensitive and helpful. But once she entered the court system, things were quite different.

Even before the trial began, she was appalled by the advice she was given by the court-appointed victims adviser.

" 'Make sure you don't wear too much jewellery because the jury will think you're promiscuous. Don't wear make-up, don't wear a short skirt.' It threw me into a panic – what do I wear? No make-up at all? Some make-up?

"They were kind and genuine, but it did not prepare me for court. I left more confused than when I arrived."

The statistics show traumatic experiences in our courts are the norm for complainants like J, and that's keeping reporting rates extremely low. Fewer than 10 per cent of victims ever report to police; of those just 31 per cent get to court, and just 13 per cent of cases result in a conviction. Once you boil the numbers down, that's one in a hundred assaults.

In 2016 a Law Commission report sparked a two-year trial – a Sexual Violence Pilot Court operating in Auckland and Whangarei – which will deliver its final report around the middle of this year. It aims to create a gentler, less traumatising experience for complaints and to date, has at least managed to cut the time from complaint to trial, in half. But critics of the current system claim the changes are nowhere near broad enough.

Independent volunteer victim advocate Ruth Money was eventually alerted to J's case, and stepped in to help.

"The behaviour of some players in the courtroom is out of the 1970s," she says. "Are they actually advocating for you as a person, or are they making sure you're compliant with the system?"

She points out J had an agonising three-year wait for her case to come to trial and suggests all complainants should have a "navigator" with them from the time they report to police, to the end of their court process.

The jury in J's case was not permitted to hear evidence from the other young victim, who had changed her mind about making a formal complaint. J says she was warned not to even mention this woman's existence while on the stand. That made her feel "like a liar", she says.

"The court process is humiliating and I will never get any closure from this. I'm suffering more than I was when I kept the offending to myself."

"The way it's set up now, is so wrong."


JURY SELECTION

The courthouse was packed with about 100 potential jurors on the Monday morning "A" reported for jury duty. She'd never been called before, she says, and she felt "quite excited".

Juror A was ushered to a courtroom where a sexual assault trial was due to start, and sat behind a screen along with 50 others.

"When your name was called you had to walk without stopping to the jury box. They have until your butt hits the chair, to challenge," she says of the selection process.

Juror A watched as younger women, and women who were "dressed sharply" were challenged by the defence; Maori men by the prosecution. By the time all her fellow jurors had been chosen, her excitement was waning and she was starting to worry.

"This wasn't a jury of peers."

Task number one, they were told, was to select a foreman – anyone with experience running meetings should put........

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