2021 – 2022 was a busy year for Victims of Crime SA. My small team continued to work to deliver outcomes for many South Australian victims of crime, working both remotely when required and also in the office. Of course, working to assist victims is rewarding as well as challenging. I would like to acknowledge the others who work in this area, many who are also members of my consultative committee.
There have been more victims come to us this year for assistance. In the top 5 categories of our work, we received 3306 enquiries from victims, resulting in 11,510 follow up enquiries. We also provided information, advice and made submissions on behalf of victims in 65 individual parole matters, resulting in 1078 contacts and since November 2021, after changes to legislation, we have made submissions relating to 19 parole breaches with 152 contacts.
In addition, we have made Community Impact Statements in the District/Supreme Court sentencing phase and have provided independent legal funding for victims. There is more information about our work in this document.
Although we have been able to help many victims with their concerns, there are many issues that need change to benefit victims of crime in their interactions with the criminal justice system. For many victims of crime, this is their first interaction with the legal system.
The criminal justice system is complex and many victims do not know that they have rights, or what those rights are. For example, a victim may assume that when they report an offence, they will be kept informed about what is happening with their case. But in many cases they won’t unless they specifically asked to be kept informed. The Victims of Crime Act 2001 is an opt-in system and not an opt-out system. This should be changed so that victims are kept informed. Not being kept informed or consulted about what happens to their cases is one of the most common complaints made to my office.
Unfortunately, the plight of victims in the system does not always receive the attention it deserves. Until you have been a victim, you don’t understand the impact the crime has on you or others and the processes associated with the crime. In some cases, dealing with the criminal justice process further traumatises the victims. We have seen victims have their cases withdrawn or not prosecuted late in their journey when they do not agree with this; disadvantaged because of the delay in trials or continued changes to their court dates; disadvantaged because of changes to the charges that proceed in court, sometimes leading to their victim impact statement not being submitted and their only chance at telling the court and the offender of the effect on them taken away.
In a system where the criminal justice system is an argument between the state and the defendant, and the victim is only seen as a witness or a bystander, this disadvantage will continue. Victims’ Rights are not guaranteed in the Act. They are not enforceable and some only need to be provided as far as is practicable with regard to the other obligations binding on them. The only remedy is a request for a formal apology if they are breached and the agency does not deal appropriately with any grievance on behalf of the victim. If an apology is not provided, this can be alluded to in my annual report to Parliament.
All agencies involved in the criminal justice system have policies and processes that recognise the Declaration of principles governing treatment of victims but have to work within the complex system where victims are still seen as not part of the adversarial system. Victims should be central to the criminal justice process. A victim-centered approach seeks to minimize re-traumatization associated with the criminal justice process by providing support, empowering victims as engaged participants in the process, and providing victims an opportunity to play a role in the process to seek justice.
There have been changes to legislation that have assisted victims, but more needs to be done. The Communication Partner program - meant to help our most vulnerable victims access justice - has been ineffective, unlike interstate experience, and needs to be re-evaluated and funded.
Data gathered on victims of crime counselling indicates that they are one of the most traumatised groups in South Australia. There is a need to examine this data to determine what is needed to help with early intervention for all victims. This funding was cut when the tender was previously developed, and there is a need to re-examine what is required - based on the evidence gathered - and fund it appropriately, before the next tender is advertised. This is what the Victims of Crime Fund is for.
Court delays remain a problem for victims. Justice delayed is justice denied. A victim should not have to wait four years to have their matter heard in the higher courts, particularly if they are vulnerable. Of course, COVID-19 had some effect on trials, but there was a delay prior to this. It is a difficult issue but there are concerns that forthcoming major trials will adversely impact further on victims. Understandably I receive many complaints about the delay for victims and there is little remedy available.
This year, we continued to make submissions for changes, including about changes to dangerous driving laws, concealment of bodies, coercive control, funding for clean-up of suicide matters and the age of criminal liability. We also commented on numerous legislative proposals, assisted in securing ongoing funding for the Road Trauma Support team and provided independent legal funding for victims.
This coming year, we intend to make submissions on what changes are required to the Victims of Crime Act 2001 – this would include a simplified charter of victims’ rights.
We will continue with our advocacy in the coming year to make changes for the improvement of the criminal justice system for victims and access to services for victims.
Bronwyn Killmier APM
Commissioner for Victims' Rights
M.St (Cantab), MBA, Grad Dip Ed, BA