PETER CAVE: Groundbreaking Victorian research has found sexual assault victims aged in their twenties and thirties may be less likely to succeed in prosecuting their alleged offenders.
Criminologists have analysed Victoria Police files and found that alcohol use and mental illness may also work against a case succeeding.
Their study is still in its early stages but the researchers are confident their findings will help police forces around Australia and overseas.
From Melbourne, Samantha Donovan reports.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The researchers have closely analysed the Victoria Police sexual assault files of 96 female victims and nine male victims.
They’ve looked at cases where the offender was successfully prosecuted and others where the case fell apart.
They’ve considered things like the relationship of the alleged offender to the victim, their gender, the location of the alleged assault and whether or not there were any witnesses.
Criminologist Caroline Taylor from Edith Cowan University says victims aged between 31 and 40 seemed to have been less successful in prosecuting their alleged offender.
CAROLINE TAYLOR: But older victims and younger victims, that is those who were reporting offences that occurred at a much younger age, tended to have a more successful outcome and we can’t draw conclusions from that about whether that’s the quality of what police did.
What it may well suggest is that there are a range of characteristics for that age group that unfortunately make investigating these cases very difficult.
We also have to deal with the issue of complaints withdrawn which are often around that age group as well.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Could it be that it’s something to do with the social context that the assault has perhaps occurred? Perhaps it’s been while someone’s been out socialising in a nightclub or a bar or afterwards?
CAROLINE TAYLOR: Well one of the things – one of the characteristics that we looked at in the study was the number of both victims and also offenders who reported alcohol and drugs being an issue at the time of the offence, and so who knows that they – those factors may well make these cases more complex and more difficult to respond to, both for the victim and both for the offender.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: A long delay in reporting an alleged assault also seems to work against a successful prosecution, and Dr Taylor says although she’s aware the criminal justice system is attempting to improve the handling of cases involving victims with a mental disability or illness, this study shows it is a clear barrier to complaints proceeding through the system.
CAROLINE TAYLOR: That can also be issues to do with whether the victim is able to sustain engagement with their contact with the criminal justice system, whether we’re able to – if police are able to find evidence that might support or corroborate what they are saying, and just the usual pressures that come to bear about people accessing the criminal justice system, not only because of their capacity to sustain engagement but unfortunately what we do see is that where people are quite vulnerable, they find it harder to negotiate access with the criminal justice system. And certainly some of the characteristics show that vulnerable victims such as those with a cognitive impairment were not as successful in having their complaint taken all the way through.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Caroline Taylor says she’s grateful for the willingness of Victoria Police to open their files for analysis and says the force is keen to see how the findings can help them improve their handling of cases.
She’s confident the findings will also help other police forces.
CAROLINE TAYLOR: I’ve actually been really pleased that one area of our research, which has been an online victim survey, we have had interest from police in Canada and the UK about this particular survey because it’s quite a unique tool that we developed – it’s a one-off – and they have been interested in having a look at the survey to see whether they could use that in their own jurisdictions, and I’ve also had interest from police in other jurisdictions in Australia to use the survey.
So they’ve been quite – we’ve had good interest in what we’re doing and particularly because the size and scope of the project is very large and has had a sustained focus on sexual violence.
I think it’s going to produce some really useful outcomes for Victoria Police, for police across jurisdictions in Australia and overseas, and enormous assistance to victims which is what the project is about.
PETER CAVE: Dr Caroline Taylor from the Edith Cowan University ending Samantha Donovan’s report.