What schools and organisations need to know about the VLRC’s report “Improving the Response of the Justice System to Sexual Offences”

It is hard to imagine more worthwhile law reform work than finding ways to free Victorians from the risk of sexual offending.

In recent times there has been a significant movement in the call for improving society’s response to sexual offending not only in Australia, but on a global scale. Abroad, the conviction of Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement has been significant in bringing attention to this important issue. Back home, we have heard Brittany Higgins’ horrific allegations that she was sexually assaulted in our federal parliament building and the inadequate response to those allegations, child sexual abuse survivor Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year in 2021 for her important advocacy work for victim survivors, and Saxon Mullins has been a vocal advocate for law reform leading to NSW introducing affirmative consent laws for sexual offending.

Did you know that 1 in 5 women over the age of 15 have experienced sexual assault?
85% of these assaults are not reported to police.

On 12 November 2021, the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) released its report entitled Improving the Response of the Justice System to Sexual Offences (the Report). The Report was commissioned to review and report on Victoria’s laws and the response of the justice system in relation to sexual offending, following years of scrutiny and public debate. Following 99 consultations and 71 written submissions, the VLRC produced a comprehensive report identifying opportunities to build upon previous reforms, identifying barriers to reporting and responding to sexual offences, and recommendations to improve the justice system’s response to sexual offending.

The findings of the Report have the capacity to assist organisations in preventing sexual offending and improving organisational responses to sexual offending.

This article is the first in a forthcoming series in relation to the Report and its recommendations.

So what did the Report recommend?

The Report contains 91 recommendations which provide a roadmap for effective change, impacting community organisations, workplaces, schools, the justice system and the child protection system.

The key recommendations include:

  • Providing government resources to continue public education about sexual violence, including common misconceptions about sexual violence and the law of consent.
  • Reviewing the content and implementation of the Respectful Relationships education and sexuality education, including improving uptake by all independent, Catholic and government schools.
  • Revising the definition of consent with the aim of moving towards a stronger model of affirmative consent.
  • Making image based offences indictable offences which have more serious consequences for an offender and taking steps to reduce the over-criminalisation of young people who commit image based offences.
  • Including ‘stealthing’ (a criminal act where a person removes a condom (or other contraceptive or STI prevention device) without the other person’s consent) in the definition of consent.
  • Implementing recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in relation to the ‘course of conduct’ charge and the offence of ‘persistent sexual abuse of a child under the age of 16’.
  • Amending the Equal Opportunity Act 2020 (Vic) to give the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission the power to enforce the duty to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sexual harassment and create an enforceable duty to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sexual violence.
  • Creating an independent body, such as a Commission for Sexual Safety, which would be responsible for implementing the Report’s recommendations, preventing and reducing sexual violence, and supporting people who experience sexual violence.
  • Undertaking a review of how various bodies collaborate in their response to sexual violence, including interactions between the justice system and the child protection system.
  • Amending various Acts to broaden the rights of victim survivors during the investigation process, including the right to request an independent review of decisions by police or prosecution to discontinue or not file charges or indictments.
  • Improving research and data collection regarding sexual offences.
  • Providing online access to a central hub to provide people with advice and support regarding sexual offences.
  • Funding community organisations to take on key responsibilities including providing safe spaces for people to disclose sexual violence, providing support or referral services, and developing community-specific ways to prevent sexual violence and educate their community.
  • Placing a greater emphasis on restorative justice and creating a restorative justice scheme for offences, including working with Aboriginal communities to design accredited restorative justice programs for Aboriginal people.
  • Developing a coordinated approach to preventing sexual offending and reoffending, with a focus on early intervention programs.

What does this mean for schools and organisations?

Schools and organisations should prepare to see a number of changes being implemented by the Victorian government in response to the Report over the coming year.

The Victorian Government has made a public commitment to reforming sexual offence laws to include affirmative consent. As Ministerial Order 870 requires schools to provide healthy relationships and consent education, we recommend that schools get on the front foot of the recommendations by ensuring that the education provided to students addresses affirmative consent.

Although the Victorian government is yet to formally respond to the other recommendations in the Report, we recommend as a matter of best practice that organisations:

  • Complete a risk assessment to determine what reasonable and proportionate measures can be taken to eliminate sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, including how the organisation responds to complaints regarding sexual harassment and/or assault to ensure that the response is trauma informed. Those risks should be addressed in workplace health and safety policies and procedures, including providing victim survivors with the option to make anonymous reports.
  • Pay particular attention to any barriers within the organisation which prevent the disclosure of sexual abuse. Organisations should have efficient complaints processes to ensure a procedurally fair and trauma informed process which allows for appropriate action to be taken which minimises any harm on the victim, and frequent review of those process to ensure continual improvement.

How Moores can help

Moores’ Child Safety team delivers seminars to students to educate them on important topics such as consent, respectful relationships, harassment and image based violence.

Moores can also assist organisations in reviewing, auditing and improving complaints processes, and to reduce barriers in reporting. Moores can assist in responding to complaints or disclosures of sexual offending and harassment to ensure a trauma focused response which is procedurally fair.

If you think your organisation needs training or a refresher, or any assistance in the complaints process, please get in touch with Patrice, Alex or Melissa to discuss how we can assist.

For more information, please contact us.