Victim survivors must have a right to know

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Question without notice

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:34):

My question is to the Attorney-General regarding the rights for survivors of stranger sexual assault to know the identity of an alleged offender.

Cathy Oddie is a member of the Victims of Crime Consultative Committee and is the survivor of an alleged historical rape by a stranger. In her case the alleged offender left the country before investigations were complete, and she has been lobbying the Department of Justice and Community Safety to know his identity.

Survivors have been refused identity information on the basis that the Charter of Human Rights states that a person has the right not to have his or her reputation unlawfully attacked, and the agency said that sharing an alleged perpetrator’s name would therefore be unlawful.

Attorney, my serious misgivings about the department’s argument aside, what action is the government taking to assist survivors in these circumstances to know the identity of their alleged attacker, even under strict conditions?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:35):

I thank Ms Maxwell for her question and at the outset acknowledge the fantastic work that Cathy Oddie brings to the consultative committee. I attend that committee on a regular basis, and her contribution is fantastic as an advocate for victim-survivors.

With the question that you specifically go to, and I will draw out the alleged offender component that you have brought to it, we certainly want to respond to sexual offending in the harshest possible way.

We have got fantastic affirmative consent laws that have been introduced into the Assembly today, just the start of ongoing reform in this space. We want to look at our criminal response and our civil response to sexual assault and sexual offending in a broad nature, and victim-survivors’ voices are at the front of that continuing consultation.

One of the issues that we have in the identity of alleged offenders goes to the root of the problems that it might cause with police investigations. There would be issues with potentially impacting proper identity procedures that might in fact ultimately harm a case.

In terms of balancing the wishes of a victim to know the identity of an alleged offender before a charge, versus making sure that the investigation is not hampered, that is something you have to be very, very careful about. Ultimately you want justice for a victim and you do not want to do anything that would hamper that end result.

I think it is important to put on record that there are protections for victims where the perpetrator is not known to them—the identity is not known to them. Police have the right to take out an intervention order on their behalf at any point or stage of an investigation if they think that there is a risk to that victim, and importantly there are no barriers to a victim who does not know the identity of their offender in accessing victims-of-crime compensation, both under our current scheme and under the future financial assistance scheme that we are moving to.

We want to have in place support mechanisms for victims, and we want to do everything we can to prevent and respond to sexual offending, which is a big part of my reform agenda, which is part way through today. Hopefully I get the opportunity to continue that for some years to come.

But in terms of balancing those rights, we have to think very carefully before we make any decisions that ultimately might have unintended consequences and actually be at odds with seeking justice for victims.

Ms MAXWELL (12:38):

Thank you, Attorney. I really appreciate your empathy and kind words towards Ms Oddie, who has been a longstanding advocate.

This matter was not examined as part of the recent Victorian Law Reform Commission review into improving the response of the justice system to sexual offences, but the commission chair indicated they would be happy to do so in the future, so my question is: will the Attorney ask the VLRC to review this circumstance and what potential changes could be made to the Charter of Human Rights to enable survivors of stranger sexual assault cases to know the identity of the perpetrator?

Ms SYMES (12:38):

There is not a lot to add, I guess, based on the answer that I gave to your substantive question.

I have indicated to you, without a firm commitment of timing or anything like that, that I am interested in looking at the Victims’ Charter into the future and what we can do in that respect.

I am also not in a position to outline the forward plan of the VLRC in question time today, but I will certainly take on board your suggestions.