Sexual offences courts critical in the fight against GBV

Date: 15/05/2017

Organisations in the gender-based violence sector were shocked to learn that the Department of Justice intends to investigate the possibility of reducing resources provided to sexual offences courts.  This announcement was made during the Deputy Minister of Justice’s keynote address at the launch of the Thembalethu Sexual Offences Court in George, on 15 May 2017.

Sexual Offences Courts were scrapped from the South African criminal justice system, despite their success, in or around 2008. However, due to civil society demand and escalating sexual violence against women and children, the specialised courts were reintroduced by an Act of parliament signed by the President in January 2014. The viability of this reintroduction was thoroughly investigated by the Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offences Matters. This Task team released it comprehensive report in August 2013, which found that Sexual Offences Courts could be re-introduced if this was done is a truly meaningful and resourced way. The report and its findings were lauded by activists as real hope for victims, who are routinely traumatized by the criminal justice system, leading to case attrition and poor conviction rates. The report contained detailed recommendations forming a model for such courts, setting out requirements for physical infrastructure, equipment, human resources, skills of various judicial officers, and specific victim-friendly practices. These were costed by the Task Team, and the costs formed part of the report.

However, the Deputy Minister on Wednesday announced that the “department finalised its partnership with Unicef to develop a less resourced and less costly Sexual Offences Courts Model.”

Kathleen Dey, national director of Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, said, “We were deeply disappointed to learn about this move. Those activists and civil society organisations working in the sector were not consulted on the aims and intentions behind this partnership, and it is certainly not in keeping with the recommendations of the Task Team or what we have been promised in respect of the roll-out of these courts. The recommended resources are all there for very specific reasons, directly linked to the needs of victims and improved conviction rates.”

“Any plan to reduce the resources to Sexual Offences Courts fundamentally erodes and undermines the whole idea of bringing them back in the first place. A decision was made to reintroduce these courts based on the appropriate model recommended in the Task Team report, civil society backed the idea, and law was passed for this to happen. It would be unacceptable for the state to now go half-way on implementation. They knew what it would cost when the decision was made,” said Sanja Bornman of the Lawyers for Human Rights Gender Equality Programme.

Alison Tilley, head of advocacy and special projects at the Open Democracy Advice Centre, said, “The courts are certainly under pressure as a result of the increasing levels of crime, and especially crime against women and children. Outrage about the level of violence continues to grow. The idea that courts will not use the most effective system we have for convictions and reducing secondary trauma even before it has actually been implemented is startling indeed.”

For info, contact: Alison Tilley 071 671 8654, Sanja Bornman 083 522 2933, or Kathleen Dey 084 568 5356

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