Why people make a difference to the experience of survivors

Previously we wrote about the space created for discussion as we partnered with the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Law and Society to host a panel discussion on developing court models in South Africa. However, it was not only the space that we were grateful for, but also the content of the discussion.

As the three researchers, Lisa Vetten, Dr Aisling Heath, and Karen Hollely, shared some key findings from their work and presented their opinions to the people that attended, there was a very clear golden thread tying together their findings: people. When victims of sexual offences were interviewed during research conducted by the Child Witness Institute, it was clear that people’s experience of the criminal justice system and sexual offences court depends on the people that work in the court and how supportive they are. This was the same for when magistrates and prosecutors were interviewed about working in sexual offences courts – justice is dispensed by people and who those people are, matter greatly.

As survivors experience the criminal justice system, they experience people. The prosecutor who interviews them and who leads their testimony. The interpreter translating their testimony. The magistrate acting as the presiding officer. And the court supporter, holding the survivor through the process. Clearly the criminal justice system is not some far away “system” devoid of human interaction.
Clearly the criminal justice system IS people.

The question then is how do we make sure that we have the right people who will not only limit secondary trauma suffered by the survivor, but will also ensure that justice is served and that perpetrators are convicted? Fortunately, research (like what was presented at this panel discussion) can provide enormous help in this regard and the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign uses this information when lobbying government for the rollout of sexual offences courts.

We are currently lobbying the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to finalise the Regulations for Sexual Offences Courts. The regulations provide the minimum requirements for a sexual offences court to exist, including the people that should work at such a court. One of the issues that we lobbied for, is the inclusion of court supporters in the requirements for sexual offences court. We hear what researchers say about the importance of the right people providing support to survivors in the criminal justice system and we could use this information to lobby for specialised court supporters provided by Non-Profit Organisations and funded by the Department of Social Development. Although the regulations have not been finalised, we are very positive that specialised court supporters will be included.

The powerful thing about research then, is when words come to life. When research is used to make real-life changes in legislation and people’s experience of courts, that is when we know positive change is happening.

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Jeanne Bodenstein is the coordinator of the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign for the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.

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Comparing numbers on sexual offences statistics

Sean Abrahams. He’s still there. And he says he is doing a great job. He’s the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, and mostly famous for not prosecuting Jacob Zuma.

Many people think it doesn’t matter to them, and that the National Prosecuting Authority is a matter for politicians and journalists. Well, let’s take a look at gender-based violence; more specifically sexual offences. That’s an issue that you will know about, and in fact determines some of what you do. Those streets you don’t walk at night, those lectures you give your kids about people spiking their drinks? It’s because you don’t feel safe. One reason you may not feel safe is because rapists are not convicted in significant enough numbers. But how bad are those numbers really?

 Sean will tell you all is well. His NPA has a conviction rate of 72,8% on sexual offences. Sounds good, right? You can sleep better at night, knowing that?

Not so much. The number of convictions on Sean’s own version is 5 001.  The sexual offences crime category contains the crimes detailed in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Act. Crimes that fall under this broad category include rape, compelled rape, sexual assault, incest, bestiality, statutory rape and sexual grooming of children – among others.

In 2016/17, the police recorded a total of 49 660 sexual offences, down from 51 895 in 2015/16. The vast majority of the sexual offences recorded were rapes, followed by sexual assaults.

If 49 660 cases were reported why are there only 5 001 convictions? Even if Sean’s maths is as bad as mine, that’s not 72,8% percent.  So, what’s going on?

Well, at the essence of it is the number of cases that make it to prosecution. At a Rape Crisis event in Cape Town showcasing research on sexual offences courts in May, Lisa Vetten reported on recent research on statistics around convictions. According to her findings an arrest is made in only 57% of cases and only 65% of those were referred for prosecution. Prosecutors accepted 34,4% and these were enrolled for trial. Trials started in 18,5% cases and 8,6% cases were finalised, with a verdict of guilty of a sexual offence.  

With these new statistics in mind it makes us wonder what Sean is talking about? In the 2017/2018 reporting period only an estimated 6 868 sexual offences cases were prosecuted and of these 5 001 resulted in convictions. This is where the National Prosecuting Authority gets their 72,8% success rate statistic.  Sean is therefore only referring to the handful of cases that his staff have cherry picked for prosecution, which have really good prospects of success. What is a ‘good’ rape case? This is usually seen as a respectable, presentable victim, who is sober, badly injured, and has only enough of a relationship with the perpetrator to identify him. What’s a bad case? On the whole this is seen as anyone who is too young, too old, had a few beers, was in the wrong place, or the investigating officer didn’t investigate properly.

 Case investigations are led by constables, in half of the cases. In half the cases the perpetrator was fully named and in 70% of these cases his or her contact details were also supplied. There are nevertheless many cases where the police investigation and documentation of this is deficient. In the dockets the address of the complainant is not always recorded (2,1% of cases), the complainant statement was not signed (13,4% of cases) and the complainant or guardian’s telephone number was missing (21,5% of cases). In only 7% of cases was it noted that the Investigating Officer’s name and contact number had been given to the complainant.

So that’s part of why prosecutors declined to prosecute in 47,7 % of cases referred by police for prosecution. It also explains how the NPA can claim a 72,8% success rate on convictions. As we can see, the actual stats show a very different story when it comes to sexual offences and violence against women.

Sean Abrahams. He’s still there. And he says he is doing a great job. 

 Find out more about what makes a strong rape case from the courts perspective here: https://rapecrisisblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/evidence-rape-court-case/

Download the full report: Rape Justice In South Africa: A Retrospective Study Of The Investigation, Prosecution And Adjudication Of Reported Rape Cases From 2012: http://www.mrc.ac.za/reports/rape-justice-south-africa-retrospective-study-investigation-prosecution-and-adjudication

 

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Alison Tilley is an attorney, and the head of advocacy at the Open Democracy Advice Centre, which is a law centre based in South Africa, specialising in access to information and whistleblowing law. The Centre works on these transparency issues across Africa.www.opendemocracy.org.za