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Breakfast investigates victim blaming in sexual assault cases, rape culture and low prosecution rates

In the wake of shocking new statistics about sexual assault conviction rates, TVNZ's Breakfast show has been looking into the situation with a number of experts in the field.

New research done by the Law Talk magazine, compiling figures released by Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry of Justice, shows in 2018, just half of all adults charged with sexual assault and related offences were convicted.

That's 51 per cent of the 5300 that went before the courts.

Read more:

Victim blaming in sexual assault cases 'appalling', Crown Prosecutor says amid damning statistics

Court process for dealing with sexual assault cases needs overhaul, says law expert

Advocate for sexual assault victims takes aim at 'rape culture and toxic masculinity' in New Zealand

Defence lawyers have obligation to 'robustly defend' clients accused of sex crimes but 'rape myths' have no place in court – top barrister

Stamping out 'low level sexual harassment' first step in combatting 'rape culture' – educator

Of all adult crime put before the courts in New Zealand, sexual assault is the least likely to result in a guilty verdict.

On Monday, Breakfast's John Campbell spoke with Auckland Crown prosecutor Kirsten Lummis, who spoke of the difficulties in getting a conviction, and how victim blaming is impacting trials.

"We're still coming up against the rape myths, we're still coming up against victim blaming and that's the problem that we have to overcome," she said.

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    Kirsten Lummis talks through a recent case where a photo of a woman’s bra was held up in court by a defence lawyer. Source: Breakfast

    "We've got a very recent example out of our office of a defence lawyer holding up a photograph of the bra that the woman had been wearing and saying "look she got dressed that morning intending on going out and having sexual relations that evening", and the bra was a very floral, standard, everyday piece of underwear; and why that should even attract comment in 2019 - it's appalling."

    The issue of intoxication and consent was canvassed by Lummis, and then Waikato University law lecturer Paulette Benton-Greig on Tuesday, who said:

    "It looks to us that those victims [of sexual assault while intoxicated] are kind of in a difficult and almost impossible position," she says.

    "When they’re asked questions like - 'isn’t it possible that you don’t remember giving consent?' - this is an impossible situation for her to be in because the only credible answer to a question like that is, yes I guess it's possible because we can’t know what the impossible is."

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      Paulette Benton-Greig from The University of Waikato suggests improvements on TVNZ1’s Breakfast. Source: Breakfast

      She says then the jury have to accept there was possible consent even though the victim was too drunk to remember.

      Benton-Greig said the questioning of sex assault victims also needed to be reviewed.

      "There should be rules that prevent people from making the kinds of suggestions that are stereotypical and have false ideas about woman and men and sex."

      Yvonne Urry, who supports and prepares sexual assault victims before they go through the trial process, told Campbell on Wednesday the courts need to shift their focus from the behaviour of victims to that of offenders. 

      New Zealand also had to look at she calls its "rape culture and toxic masculinity".

      Ms Urry says during the trial process defence lawyers "will dredge through anything to try and make it the victim's fault".

      "It was what you wore, it was the fact that you knew them, you were a bit friendly that night," she says.

      "She’s a sex worker so if you’re in that line of work you should just expect that to happen and it’s the same with Tinder - 'she used Tinder what did she expect' - Using Tinder is not consenting."

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        Yvonne Urry says courts need to shift their focus from the victim’s behaviour to the offender. Source: Breakfast

        Ms Urry says she feels "awful" for sexual assault victims and what they're faced with in the court trial process.

        "I've done everything I can to prepare them for it but it's knowing that that is going to be their experience of the justice system and their experience of 'justice' and that's not justice."

        She says it’s not just about the sexual violence that hurts, it’s about people's reactions and responses and the default response is to blame.

        "[Victims] are left feeling devastated, upset, retraumatised and the reoccuring thing they say to me is how can they [defence lawyers] do this for a job? How can this person sleep at night after what they put me through?"

        Annabel Cresswell who has defended over 20 sexual assault cases told John Campbell on Thursday that those in her position have a responsibility to "robustly defend" those accused of sexual assault but "rape myths" have no place in the courtroom.

        "We are aware of toxic masculinity and we are aware of rape myths and we are trying to work with the courts and with the law to make the complaints stay in court easier," she said.

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          Defence lawyers have an obligation to do their best to defend those accused the crime, Annabel Cresswell says. Source: Breakfast

          But Ms Cresswell says the defence lawyers still have a job to do.

          "We do have to defend our client and we do have to cross-examine them. The client has a right to a robust defence.

          "You need to allow defence lawyers to do their jobs, test and challenge the evidence and trust us that we are trying to do our best to make the day in court easier for the complainant."

          Debbie Tohill, a rape prevention educator, told Hayley Holt on Friday that so called "rape culture" can be changed by first calling out low level sexual harassment. 

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            Debbi Tohill talks to Breakfast about how to prevent rape and explains what consent is. Source: Breakfast

            Ms Tohill and her team of 30 work in schools around Auckland to teach students about positive relationships, preventing rape and the issue of sexual consent.

            "We need to call people out when they’re making sexist jokes and making somebody uncomfortable," she said.

            "There are easy ways that we can stop low level sexual harassment so that it's not acceptable to do more and more and eventually lead into sexual violence."

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              Kirsten Lummis says there are still big problems for people seeking justice. Source: 1 NEWS