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Experienced lawyer says sex abuse conviction rates point to broken system

A lawyer experienced in sexual abuse court cases says the country’s low conviction rate is proof change is needed in the justice system.

Barrister Ian Murray outlined his concerns to 1 NEWS today.

“I think the research that came out today shows the conviction rate for sexual violence is concerningly low… the fact it is at 11 per cent shows I think that the justice system isn’t working properly,” Mr Murray said.

“I was a little surprised, but I wasn’t completely shocked.”

For every 100 reports of sexual violence made to police, 31 lead to someone being charged for the offence, 11 result in a conviction and six lead to a prison sentence.

The Ministry of Justice analysed sexual abuse reports to police from 2014 to 2018 in first-of-its-kind research for New Zealand.

Mr Murray welcomed moves from the Government to improve the justice system for sexual abuse survivors.

“The system changes need to be focused on making it fairer and better for victims but not run the risk of us simply lowering the standard of proof and getting more people convicted,” he said.

Mr Murray said the main reason for the low conviction rate is the fact that many sexual assaults happen without leaving physical evidence.

“It’s one person’s word against another and when that’s the case, I think it can be that juries get to the point where they think it’s happened but they can’t be sure – if they can’t be sure, they can’t convict.”

Mr Murray said making victims more comfortable in court could increase convictions.

“Hopefully the flow on effect of that will be that they will tell a story in a way that will resonate with people in the jury and so that the jury will be able to be sure of that person’s evidence if it’s uncorroborated or unsupported alone.”

A sex abuse survivor who cannot be named for legal reasons said the low rate of convictions was “horrible” but that she wasn’t surprised due to her experience of the justice system being traumatic.

“They don’t really view you as a person… it’s like you’re just a piece of evidence, a number on a piece of paper,” she said.

She said the justice system could be improved in many ways including always allowing a support person to be present when being questioned, asking victims how they are feeling during the trial, telling them they can stop proceedings if they want and allowing breaks.

The Government wants to have options to give evidence in advance, or by audio-visual link for victims, more support for victims in court and tighter rules on questioning in place, among other moves, before the next election.

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For every 100 cases of sexual violence reported to police, only 11 ends in a conviction. Source: 1 NEWS