A specialist court for domestic violence and sexual assault cases would be established by a NSW Labor government, deputy opposition leader Linda Burney will announce on Sunday.
The election commitment aims to reduce the trauma experienced by victims going to court by employing specialist judges and lawyers, designing courtrooms to ensure safety and privacy, and allowing victims to give evidence remotely.
Labor has committed to trials in metropolitan Sydney, Wollongong and the Hunter.
“We have a massive under-reporting rate in sexual assault, and half the conviction rate of any other area of criminality,” Karen Willis, executive officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, said.
Ms Willis undertook a Churchill Fellowship to study the operation of specialist domestic violence courts in Canada, South Africa, Britain and the United States. She believes this approach could increase the reporting of assaults and conviction rates in Australia.
Delays in reporting a sexual assault in NSW are often interpreted by courts as “making up a story”.
“We know with trauma, that victims go numb and shut down,” she said.
Ms Willis says 70 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by a friend, family member or colleague, and a third in a social setting, such as a date. Because of this, grooming tactics used by offenders prior to an attack should also be examined in court.
“There needs to be a rethink of how these crimes are prosecuted, what evidence is provided and what the jury considers. The best way to do this is a specialist court,” Ms Willis said.
Ms Burney said domestic violence was a national crisis and the rate of these assaults was rising in NSW, reaching 27,000 last year – or 74 a day.
“Labor will make reducing domestic violence a top priority in government, and this includes protecting and supporting victims and bringing perpetrators to justice as quickly as possible and in a way which minimises trauma to the victim,” she said.
Labor’s women’s spokeswoman Sophie Cotsis said every woman and child had the right to be safe in their own home: “Many other jurisdictions around the world have different specialist domestic violence and sexual assault courts operating at the moment – we need to see this implemented in NSW.”
In South Africa, magistrates undergo specialist training to sit on sexual assault courts where victims can give evidence by CCTV, the court is closed for cross examination and there are separate waiting rooms and entries for the accused and the victim.
There are 200 specialist courts in the US, 100 in Britain and 50 in Canada. Labor wants an expert committee to determine the best model for a domestic violence and sexual assault court in NSW.
Specialist courts for drug-related crime have been used in NSW for 15 years, with research showing people sentenced through these courts less likely to reoffend.
The Hunter recorded 2700 cases of domestic violence and 1100 sexual or indecent assaults in the past year.
The Illawarra recorded 1043 domestic violence cases and 450 sexual or indecent assaults.
Ms Willis said that, instead of prison sentences, a “more clever” approach to preventing repeat offences would be court-mandated behaviour change programs.