Panel discusses innovative justice responses to sexual offending

At the heart of Te Herenga Waka Centre for Justice Innovation lies the idea that law reform innovations are best achieved by combining evidence-based research with contributions from both the Law and other disciplines to address failings and inequities in the justice system.

Six panelists sit at a long table
Reader in Law Māmari Stephens (facilitator), independent researcher Dr Kay Stuart, Chair in Restorative Justice for Te Ngapara Centre for Restorative Practice Dr Jane Bolitho, Lecturer Dr Danica McGovern, author and researcher Dr Claire Baylis, and Academic Director of the Te Herenga Waka Centre for Justice Innovation Professor Yvette Tinsley (panel Chair).

Last week, Te Kauhanganui Tātai Ture―Faculty of Law and the Te Herenga Waka Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI) hosted a panel discussion made up of experts from a range of disciplines to explore alternatives to using jury trials in dealing with sexual violence offences.

Professor Yvette Tinsley, co-director of the CJI and panel Chair, opened the standing-room-only session by saying, “while there has been much work done to improve sexual violence pre-trial and trial processes through all of the traditional law reform channels, we know that significant issues remain.”

Panellists brought their background and research findings to the conversation: Community-based restorative justice approaches, confidential conversation frameworks, treatment options for offenders and the educational role of the arts around what constitutes consent were all outlined and later discussed with members of the audience.

Dr Danica Mc Govern, a lecturer at Te Herenga Waka,  said: “The problem is the fundamental nature of sexual assault trials,” she said. “Most of the evidence is what the complainant says happened, and the approach from the defence is to say that either the complainant consented or behaved in a way that basically invited a sexual assault.”

Author and former lecturer Dr Claire Baylis agrees. She says that, although societal attitudes are changing, jury trials are such that “there is no doubt that jurors also draw on cultural misconceptions and rape-myths in their deliberations”.

Dr Baylis used her research into juror attitudes to inform her new novel ‘Dice’. She hopes that through literature she can help change community understanding of issues like jury deliberations and consent by evoking emotions in a way that academic articles can’t.

Dr Kay Stuart pointed out that there is a high level of unresolved sexual harm in our communities, with something like 90% of cases going unreported. “The reasons for this are complex. We need to start thinking differently about things,” she urges.

Dr Stuart has designed a safe community-based facilitated dialogue for victims whose cases would probably not be prosecuted and who want to resolve their harm directly with their  perpetrators. “ You can change behaviour, but if we keep focusing on criminality you end up in the courts”.

Dr Jane Bolitho, Chair in Restorative Justice at the University’s Te Ngāpara Centre for Restorative Practice School of Government agrees:  “We have a crisis here.” She believes that in suitable cases restorative justice as an alternative to jury trials can be a pathway to meaningful justice—"it creates a space for survivors to speak of the violence and is an opportunity for accountability.”

So, should sexual violation cases be tried by a jury, by judges alone, or by some other type of decision-maker such as a mixed community-judge panel? What options exist to obtain justice for complainants whose cases go to trial and for victims whose cases remain unreported? How can we integrate restorative practices and conversations into the mix? Would bringing in treatment options for offenders to reduce their sentence encourage victims to report more crimes?

Perhaps there were more questions than answers in this session, but, for Professor Tinsley, it’s about creating opportunities for inter-disciplinary collaboration. “By bringing together a panel of researchers at the cutting edge of justice responses to sexual violence, the Centre hopes to facilitate discussion, debate, and future research that opens the door for reform of the way we address sexual harm in our community.”

You can listen to the full recording here.

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