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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