Media Release - Reducing the trauma of sexual assault trials (25 September 2002)


An Issues Paper aimed at reducing the trauma of victims in sexual assault trials has called for submissions from interested groups and members of the public.

The central issue discussed in the New South Wales Law Reform Commission's Issues Paper launched today focuses on the questioning of complainants by an unrepresented accused in sexual assault trials.

Sexual assault is a serious crime and most defendants will have a lawyer. However any person standing trial for a criminal offence in NSW has the right to appear and to test evidence tendered in the prosecution by cross-examining witnesses. In at least 20 sexual assault cases heard in the NSW District Court in 2000, the accused was unrepresented.

'Any special measures for complainants must be balanced against the rights of the accused, who remains innocent until proved guilty and has every right to test accusations in an open forum,' said the Chairperson of the Law Reform Commission, Justice Michael Adams. 'The matter is not whether the rights of the accused or the rights of the complainant are more important, but whether the trial is fair. The public interest requires that evidence be tested, but it should be done in a way that does not cause unnecessary distress.'

The Commission wants to find out how to make it easier for complainants to give evidence in sexual assault cases, while ensuring the accused gets a fair trial. Issues that the Commission is looking at include whether:

  • the right to cross-examination in person should be restricted;
  • courts should be able to appoint a lawyer to ask questions for an unrepresented accused;
  • judges could ask the questions instead;
  • alternative arrangements, such as closed circuit television or screens, should be available for witnesses in sexual assault trials.

'The law already recognises that some people, such as child witnesses, need alternative arrangements to enable them to give evidence in a way that is fair to both them and the accused. There is a growing trend towards minimising the distress that may be caused to witnesses in sexual offence trials but at the moment, there is no special protection for adult complainants,' said Justice Adams.

The Commission is seeking input from interested groups and members of the public on the questions raised in the Issues Paper.

Media Enquiries

Justice Michael Adams, Chairperson (02) 9230 8737; Peter Hennessy, Executive Director (02) 9228 8230.