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Enhancing justice experience of sexual violence victims: a Deakin study

Deakin University criminology lecturer Mary Iliadis investigates how to meaningfully include sexual violence victims in the criminal justice system.

Content Warning: discussions of sexual violence in court proceedings and criminal justice systems generally.

In Australian legal systems, sexual violence victims have limited opportunities to participate in criminal justice processes.

In most states and territories, the only opportunity to do so is through a victim impact statement, which is given if there is a guilty verdict. 

Significantly, this is because victims are considered to be ‘complainants’ bringing forward a complaint of an alleged sexual violence to which they are a witness to in the criminal proceeding. 

In her recent book, Adversarial justice and victims’ rights: Reconceptualising the role of sexual assault victims, Dr Mary Iliadis, co-convenor of the Deakin Research on Violence Against Women (DRVAW) Hub, seeks to address how we can better acknowledge victims and afford them rights in a criminal justice system that has traditionally excluded them. 

“Sexual violence victims feel so silenced within our legal system because, beyond the victim statement, they aren’t given the opportunity to relay their version of events in a way that suits them or reflects their story and the impact of the crime upon them.”

So, what does the research say?

Her research has revealed the value of using a ‘triangulation of interests’ framework that acknowledges the defence, the prosecution who represent public interest and the victim.

Dr Iliadis explains: “Let’s think about the adversarial system as a triangle connecting the defendant, the prosecutor and, importantly, the victim and their voice.

“To enhance how victims experience the justice system, we need to be asking: can we give victims more of a meaningful voice? Can we enhance prospects for information? Can we enable participation? How can they [victims] still feel validated even if a guilty outcome is not reached? How can they [victims] exercise control over those proceedings?”

In Australia, just under 30 per cent of sexual assault reports lead to an arrest, summons, formal caution or other legal action.

It is important to acknowledge that not all victims choose to come forward. In fact, current reporting rates are a significant underestimate of the gravity and extent of sexual victimisation within Australia, and indeed globally. 

In an effort to reconceptualise victims from ‘witnesses’ to ‘participants’, Dr Illiadis’ research attests that if victims do decide to report a crime, they should be given opportunities to meaningfully participate.

A global impact 

Through her work, Dr Iliadis has investigated victim-focused reforms that offer victims enhanced rights to information and participation across England and Wales, Ireland and Australia to determine if they met victims’ procedural justice needs from the criminal justice system.

A primary focus of her work has been examining whether there is scope and merit in introducing independent legal representation for victims of sexual violence in adversarial legal systems, including within Victoria’s criminal prosecution processes. 

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Dr Iliadis found that some overseas initiatives, like the introduction of independent legal representation in Ireland, did improve sexual violence victims’ participation and procedural justice experiences to an extent.

Her work advocates for the introduction of independent legal representation to be provided to victims in circumstances where their rights, interests or privacy are compromised or not adequately represented in legal proceedings – such as if defence counsel seek to cross-examine victims on their prior sexual history.

In Ireland, victims can engage independent legal counsel (ILR) if the defence seek to question victims on their previous sexual experiences. Her research found that the presence of ILR might reduce the secondary harm experienced by victims at trial. 

From paper to pilot 

Cited in the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s report on The Role of Victims of Crime in Criminal Trial and in Northern Ireland’s Gillen Review into the Laws and Procedures in Serious Sexual Offences, Dr Iliadis’ research has influenced national and international debates on the role and rights of victims of sexual violence in criminal trials.

The Chair of the Review, Sir John Gillen – a retired Judge of Belfast’s High Court – described Dr Iliadis’s research as “absolutely invaluable, serving to inform the Advisory Board’s views on this issue [sexual history evidence] in a manner that otherwise would not have been possible.”

The influential report from the Gillen Review cited the work of Dr Iliadis, which then led to the development of a pilot in Northern Ireland to introduce legal representation for victims within defined and limited contexts. 

“My research helped to shed light on how we might consider introducing victims’ rights without compromising the ways in which the current legal system operates,” Dr Iliadis says. 

Evidence-based, incremental steps forward 

Dr Iliadis says the future of this research relies on working with victim-survivors to shape the laws and policies that will inform sexual violence court proceedings. 

“It is absolutely critical that we continue to consult with those impacted by the laws and policies that we’re contemplating.

“This work is about measured, evidence-based and concise incremental steps to advance victims’ involvement and level of contribution in a way that safeguards their needs and interests and allows them to contribute meaningfully to the case without further complicating and compromising the criminal trial process.”

This article was written to acknowledge and raise awareness of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th each year. 

If you or anyone you know needs help: 

Mary Iliadis is a Lecturer in Criminology from Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences and co-convener of Deakin Research on Violence Against Women Hub. Her book, Adversarial justice and victims’ rights: Reconceptualising the role of sexual assault victims, was published by Routledge in May 2020. 

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