Sharing insight to develop better court models

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Spaces where researchers, activists and students can gather to share thoughts, ideas and dreams, are few and far between. That is why we were so grateful and excited when the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Law and Society offered to partner with us to host a panel discussion on developing court models in South Africa.

This discussion was designed to follow on from the National Forum on the Implementation of the Sexual Offences Act that was presented by the Department of Justice at the end of 2017 and where some of the research concerning sexual offences courts was first presented to the public. However, only a handful of representatives from the NGO sector could attend the DOJ’s forum and we were interested to hear the views of others in the field of sexual violence, colleagues who work in courts and fellow activists.

Our panel discussion on developing court models in South Africa took place on 26 April 2018 in Cape Town and we were joined by three panellists; Lisa Vetten, from the Wits City Institute, Dr Aisling Heath from the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit at UCT, and Karen Hollely from the Child Witness Institute. Together they shared some of the key findings of their three separate research undertakings in the area of sexual offences in the court system. Their separate research studies looked at the experiences of victims of sexual violence in courts, the observation of court proceedings and the reviewing of court files. They not only shared their very interesting findings, but also their personal opinions of how this issue should be taken forward.

What made this event special is that it brought together groups from two worlds; those at the coal face working in courts, and those in front of the data and research analysing findings. In our experience it is felt that these two worlds don’t connect often enough and so the opportunities to bring these perspectives together to share insights and knowledge are always meaningful. Through the Court Support Project, Rape Crisis provides support services to survivors at five courts. This is an extremely an extremely important component of sexual offences courts. We believe that the very real experiences of our court supporters has the potential to add a depth and richness to the research done by these panellists. By the same stretch, their research helps to shed light on the systemic issues at play that influence the work that happens in courts.

The Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign (RSJC) believes that specialised sexual offences courts are the key to restoring faith in the criminal justice system by decreasing the secondary victimisation of rape survivors, and in so doing increasing conviction rates for rape. Learning from the findings of skilled researchers in combination with our own experiences is immensely valuable. It influences our RSJC strategy and helps us work towards answering the question that is central to our campaign; what do sexual offences courts need in order to be successful in South Africa?

 

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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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Working towards making sexual offences courts a reality

We love big ideas. The big plans that make us believe that things can be better and that the world can become a better place.

The RSJC ‘big idea’ is that South Africa can reduce the number of rapes committed by increasing the conviction rates of these crimes and achieving stronger sentences for perpetrators. We believe that this goal can be achieved through the planned rollout of specialised sexual offences courts, which is why we advocate to hold our government accountable to the rollout of these courts. We believe that these specialised sexual offences courts are the key to restoring faith in the criminal justice system by decreasing the secondary victimisation of rape survivors, and in so doing increasing conviction rates for rape.

But in the real world, without the details, ‘big ideas’ cannot be achieved, and in order to see our ‘big idea’ realised the first step is to get the primary legislative framework for sexual offences courts in place. However; this legislation cannot come into operation and cannot function without the implementation of secondary legislation in the form of regulations that detail how to implement the primary legislation.

The primary legislation we lobbied for was signed into law in the second half of 2017 and the Department of Justice released the Draft Regulations on Sexual Offences Courts in December 2017 for public comment. This Draft Regulations document consisted of 54 regulations with several subsections and we provided the Department of Justice with detailed written comments on the regulations.

Making change often includes a lot of behind the scenes work before any “in front of the scenes” work can happen. This time the behind the scenes work was lobbying the Department of Justice to include the RSJC as members of civil society and experts in the field. Gaining the acceptance of our request to be included meant that we had a legitimate opportunity to drive the change we are working towards.

We therefore scrupulously worked through all 54 regulations and their subsections and put forward our comments and recommendations on each regulation to the Department of Justice at a meeting that took place the 26th March 2018 in Pretoria.

This meeting saw the RSJC team working with the Department of Justice, the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Police Service and the Department of Social Development to finalise the regulations for sexual offences courts. We worked through much of the detail with the aim of ensuring that the final regulations would result in money being spent on specialist services and personnel, as well as court infrastructure that will reduce secondary trauma to rape survivors. We believe that it is these kinds of details that will ultimately make it possible for survivors to experience a supportive criminal justice system.

We view a meeting of this nature as a massive win for the RSJC campaign and on a personal level this is the reason why I do this work. Being in the room, influencing decisions about the details that will make sexual offences courts a reality, and helping to ensure better support for survivors, is what makes big plans come to life.

 

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

Raising awareness of the importance of sexual offences courts

Rape survivors who are well supported in court make good witnesses. Good witnesses help achieve convictions and strong sentencing of rapists. And high conviction rates and strong sentences send a clear message to society that violence against women will not be tolerated. This upholds and defends the right of all people in South Africa to live free from violence, and supports improved gender equality in our country.

Here at the Rape Survivors Justice Campaign (RSJC) we advocate for the planned and funded roll out of sexual offences courts across the country by our government. We believe that in order to reduce the number of rapes committed in South Africa, we need special courts that can deal with sexual offences more effectively.

We believe that these specialised courts are the key to restoring faith in the criminal justice system by decreasing the secondary victimisation of rape survivors, and in so doing increasing conviction rates for rape and achieving stronger sentences for convicted rapists.

We believe that government should be held accountable for making sure that all survivors of sexual violence have access to a sexual offences court.

What is a Sexual Offences Court? 

Sexual offences courts are special court rooms that only deal with sexual offences such as rape. They provide special services and support to rape survivors and other witnesses.

In 2013, a new Sexual Offences Court model was developed that sets out the requirements of sexual offences courts such as the need for specially trained personnel including prosecutors, court supporters and magistrates.

The infrastructure of sexual offences courts must be designed in such a way that the survivor does not suffer secondary trauma from being in the court building as it can be very traumatising for a survivor to share a waiting area, or even to walk past the perpetrator prior to testifying, for example. The Sexual Offences Court model also stipulates the need for a special court room with a separate testifying room with CCTV equipment so that children and other vulnerable witnesses can testify and not have to see the perpetrator while they talk about what happened.

Why sexual offences courts are important:

These courts are important as they are sensitive to the survivor and help to:

  • make the trauma of a survivor much less
  • speed up cases so they are completed more quickly
  • make better court decisions or judgements because the people working in these courts are experts that are very skilled and experienced
  • give more people hope that reporting rape will work out well, so more rape survivors will report their cases to the police
  • get more convictions and send more perpetrators to jail

In pursuit of this goal, the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign has focused on the roll out of specialised sexual offences courts as well as the criteria for defining these courts and the laws that govern and regulate the establishment and functioning of these courts. We plan to implement a lobbying, advocacy and digital media strategy that will see government roll out ten new sexual offences courts per year over the next three years.

 

The Rape Crisis Team 

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Does Rape Matter?

If the words of magistrates and judges are anything to go by, we would be able to grade rape crimes into categories- from not so bad to worst.

As if the act of rape itself was not traumatic enough, survivors still have to listen to remarks made during trial, that is, if their case makes it to court.

But who monitors what judges and magistrates say in their courtrooms? No one, really.

While it isn’t possible to monitor every single rape judgment handed down (and I wish I personally could), we can, instead, choose the people who are appointed to the bench, very carefully.

Next month, the Judicial Service Commission will conduct interviews on potential candidates, who may be deemed as fit for the bench.

Candidates are often asked about their experience, past judgments, how long they served as an acting judge for, and what their experience is with civil cases.

Based on previous JSC sittings, rape judgments delivered by these candidates often slip through the cracks.

This year, the case study for “what not to do when presiding over a rape case” is acting Judge Meerchand Maharaj.

Maharaj started off as a prosecutor and then moved up the ranks to become a magistrate. In his impressive CV, he lists being trained in sexual offences.

In his own words, in a rape appeal matter, the acting judge writes: “Rape is undeniably a despicable crime. It is humiliating and degrading and constitutes a brutal invasion of the privacy and dignity of the person…”

But when dealing with an appeal against sentence in a case where a nine-year-old child was raped, Maharaj decides that this is not the most serious rape he has presided over.

He writes, “the learned magistrate overemphasised the seriousness of the crime…”

In considering the substantial and compelling circumstances, he notes, “There is no evidence of serious injury to the complainant or her emotional state.”

Maharaj’s remarks are echoed in many other judgments.

During the 2015 JSC interviews, another shortlisted candidate, Judge Francis Legodi, made similar remarks in a judgment.

In a case where a ten-year-old was raped, Judge Legodi said that compared to other victims, the child was “less affected and traumatised” and that her performance at school was “not seriously affected”. The man’s sentence was changed from life imprisonment to ten years each for two rapes.

Legodi in another rape judgment said: “In coming to the sentence I don’t think this rape was one of the worst. Minimum force was used, ten years imprisonment in my view is a bit severe.”

In 2016, shortlisted candidate Judge Christiaan van der Merwe also expressed similar sentiments of lack of injury in his judgment. “There was no serious or lasting mental injury to the complainant,” he wrote. He concluded that life imprisonment was “disproportionate and unjust” for the rapist due to these circumstances.

These are just a few examples of remarks made by judges about the nature of the rape, “not being the worst”, nor the injuries “too severe”. This may be a result of presiding officers who have become desensitised to the issue of rape because they often preside over many of these cases.

But that’s no excuse. Judges owe it to the survivors and to the justice system to ensure that they are sensitive and strive for impartiality.

The courts are said to be a microcosm of society. Is this really what we think of rape crimes? That some are more serious than others? The act of rape is horrific enough. Full stop. No further explanation is needed.

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The Justice Lady is a writer who wants to give a voice to the voiceless. She is an advocate for the rights of rape survivors. She keeps a close eye on the courts, the media and the role they play in shaping the manner in which society sees rape.