Sexual violence and the Justice system: Abject Fail

The Law Commission proposals for alternative trial processes for sexual violence sit in a context of the abject failure of the justice system.

While communities and survivors in particular have increasingly asked for Police assistance to stop rape and sexual violence – with reporting of sexual offences up 45% since 2004 – the justice sector’s ability to respond has not stepped up.

Police estimate, despite reporting increases, that they still only get to hear about 10% of sexual violence in New Zealand. According to the Ministry of Justice Crime and Safety Survey, sexual offences are the fifth most common kind of criminal offence.

The abjectness of our justice system’s failure sits not only in how commonplace sexual violence is, or how under-reported. There is also the fact that the conviction rate for reported sexual offences against adults is 13%. Which means there is about a one in a hundred chance that a particular act of sexual violence will be successfully prosecuted by our justice system.

Again with the abjectness not being done. The most damning evidence that our justice system gives survivors of sexual violence a poor deal, in my opinion, comes straight out of the mouths of the justice system. In 2009, research asked New Zealand Police and Crown Prosecutors:

‘If you had a close friend or family member who was a victim of sexual violence, would you recommend they go through the criminal justice system?’

41% of Police said no, or they didn’t know, if they would recommend going through our criminal justice system. Those who were unsure talked about being happier to recommend if the sexual violence corresponded to rape myths (stranger, violent etc).

I wouldn’t put myself through this and certainly would let a friend or family know how degrading it is and that they will be revictimised and the chances of a guilty verdict are very, very low. (Police)

And Crown Prosecutors, those responsible for ensuring sexual violence does not go unpunished? 61% of them said no, or they didn’t know, if they would recommend going through our criminal justice system. As with the Police, those who were unsure stressed they would be more likely to recommend for stranger rapes.

In my view the process for complainants in sexual violence cases is brutal, every aspect of the complainant’s character and conduct is questioned and exposed, and the likely outcome is not guilty. (Crown prosecutor)

Our current justice system does not work for sexual violence. Not even those deeply embedded within the justice system are happy to recommend it for their loved ones. Sexual violence conviction rates are lower than for any other kind of crime. We must improve this situation if we are serious about sexual violence being unacceptable.

The Law Commission’s recommendations on alternative trial processes have the potential to improve this situation significantly.

We have until Friday 27 April to let the Law Commission know what we need from our justice system for survivors of sexual violence. You can tell them here, or email at, or post your submission to:

The Law Commission, ATTN: Alternative Trial Processes Consultation, PO Box 2590, Wellington 6140, New Zealand.

Louise Nicholas supports the Law Commission recommendations:


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