Control over reporting a sexual offence should remain with the victim. There are multiple options for reporting a sexual offence and victims can obtain assistance and support from the Centres Against Sexual Assault. Reporting a sexual offence may be traumatic and getting legal advice on the process is advised.
Support for survivors of sexual assault
Sexual assault is mostly committed on women or children. It is one of the most under-reported crimes, regardless of whether the crime is committed against women, men or children. This is partly because many people who have been sexually assaulted fear they will not be believed, and also because they are afraid of the response that their complaint will evoke from the legal system or from the perpetrator of the conduct.
Victims/survivors can obtain assistance and support, especially from the Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA). The role of a CASA is to provide counselling, support, medical care, legal information and advocacy for victims of sexual assault.
For many victims of sexual assault, the decision to tell anyone what has happened, or report the matter to police or other authorities, is very difficult. Some victims are unsure whether what has happened to them is legally defined as a crime. They can also be frightened of retribution. Victims of sexual assault who choose to become involved in the legal process frequently find it traumatic. Anyone considering reporting sexual assault to the police should seek support and information from a CASA, or contact the 24-hour counselling service listed in “Contacts”.
For information about the legal definitions of sexual assault, and the special provisions for protecting victims, see “Sexual offences”.
Victims have a number of reporting options to consider, including:
•notifying the police of the assault, in order to provide them with information about an offender or an offence;
•notifying the police of the offence so that information may be recorded, in case a full statement might be made in future; and
•requesting that a CASA arrange a forensic medical examination, so that evidence might be collected; then the final decision as to whether to report the assault can be deferred.
Ultimately, the decision about whether to report to the police, and when to do so, remains in the hands of the victim. During a sexual assault, the victim experiences a loss of control and autonomy. Therefore, it is important that the victim has control over deciding whether or not to report the assault.
Those who are supporting victims of sexual assault should ensure they have accurate information about available legal options and support services. Ultimately, the decision to report an assault to the police, and whether to contact a CASA or other service, should remain with the victim. Similarly, victims are under no obligation to undergo a forensic medical examination.
The Police Code of Practice for Sexual Assault Cases (Code”) in the Victoria Police Manual gives priority to the medical needs and the emotional and physical wellbeing of the victim. The Code requires that a victim reporting a recent sexual assault to the police be:
•asked to provide basic information about the assault;
•taken to the nearest CASA or a Hospital Crisis Care Unit for a medical examination and support, no more than two hours after the arrival of the police officer;
•asked to make a written statement to a Community Policing Squad member of the same sex;
•given a copy of their statement to the police;
•kept informed about the progress of the police investigation (e.g. whether the offender has been caught, or whether charges have been laid);
•advised of progress with the investigation within seven days of the initial report; after that time, contact should be made with the victim every week (or more frequently, where appropriate) until the offender is located or the investigation is discontinued;
•advised of the outcome of any bail applications and any conditions of bail designed to protect the victim from the offender; and
•advised if a decision is made not to continue an investigation or not to lay charges. This decision should be communicated verbally or, if requested, in writing.
The victim (or their lawyer or CASA counsellor) can request the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) to review a police decision not to charge a sexual assault offender, but the OPP has the final decision to proceed or not with serious legal proceedings.
The written statement (or audiovisual recording) compiled by the police is the formal record of the victim’s version of the events. This evidence is used in the legal proceedings if the case goes to court, or if there is an application for victims of crime assistance. The Code makes it clear that the statement should be in the victim’s own words, without interruptions.
There is a right to have an interpreter who is, where available, of the gender asked for by the victim.
For victims with an intellectual or psychiatric disability, the Code states that an independent third person, available through the Office of the Public Advocate, must be present throughout the entire reporting procedure (see Understanding guardianship).
Before reporting a matter to the police, victims may ring the CASA 24 hour telephone service (1800 806 292) for advice on how best to proceed. A meeting between the victim and the police with a CASA counsellor/advocate present can be arranged.
Many victims do not report an assault to the police straight away. For many reasons, the report may be made much later – sometimes even years later.
This can make investigating allegations of sexual assault more difficult. From an investigative point of view, the more promptly a sexual assault is reported to police, the more probable it is that corroborative evidence will be uncovered. If there is a very long delay in reporting, the courts may halt proceedings on the basis that there has been an abuse of process. This may be because the accused has been disadvantaged in being able to assert a defence because of the delay. Generally though, matters can proceed even when an assault is reported a long time after it took place. There are many instances where charges have been brought decades after the events that are the subject of the allegations.
If the police decide there is insufficient evidence to proceed with charging the offender, and the victim is dissatisfied with this decision, the police may be asked to put their decision in writing, as per the Code. A request may also be made to have the decision reviewed by the OPP.
A victim who does not want charges to be laid may make a statement of “no further police action” or “no complaint”. However, the police are entitled to override this decision if they think it is in the public interest to pursue an offender. The police decision is based on:
•the seriousness of the offence;
•whether the offence is one of a series (e.g. committed by a “serial” rapist);
•whether the case is easy to solve; and
•the priority of the complaint within police resources.
If the police accept the reasons for not wanting to proceed, they will take a statement from the victim that gives the reasons for the decision, and states that no-one has forced the decision on the victim.
Victims worried about their safety may apply for an intervention order, where the person about whom they are concerned is a family member (see “Family violence intervention orders (state law)” in Family violence).
If an assault has been reported to the police and the offender has been charged, bail conditions may be imposed that include having no contact with the victim or their family or with any other relevant person.
There may also be alternative housing options, or legal options, available to protect a victim’s safety, if they are concerned that the offender will breach their bail or intervention order conditions.
Legal advice about these issues can be provided by a lawyer at a community legal centre, Victoria Legal Aid or a private legal firm (see Legal services that can help).
Some victims who have tried to stop charges proceeding have ended up telling the police that the initial complaint was untrue. As a result, they have been charged and convicted of the criminal offences of making false complaints to the police and of perjury.
It is an offence to make a false statement to police (s 53 Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) (“SOA”) or to acknowledge a false statement (s 414 Criminal Procedure Act 2009 (Vic) (“CP Act”)). Making a false statement in breach of section 53 of the SOA has the added penalty that anyone convicted of such a charge can be ordered to pay expenses incurred by the police in investigating the original complaint.
Some victims can also mix up the events. In these circumstances, it is not unknown for the police to raise the prospect of a charge of false reporting.
In any of these situations, it is important to seek legal advice (for where to obtain legal advice, see Legal services that can help).