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Child Sexual Offences: An Update on Initiatives in the Criminal Justice System

Child Sexual Offences: An Update on Initiatives in the Criminal Justice System

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 20/2003 by Rowena Johns
This briefing paper examines some of the developments in 2002-2003 in court procedures involving child sexual assault complainants. Methods of monitoring convicted child sex offenders are also explored. Whilst the paper focuses on initiatives in the New South Wales criminal justice system, comparisons are made to other Australian jurisdictions and to the United Kingdom.

General principles and statistics – The sexual offence provisions of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) are outlined, with guidance on how they apply to child complainants. Information from organisations such as the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research and the Judicial Commission is presented to indicate charge rates and types of penalties for child sexual assault and the characteristics of offenders. Studies suggest that significant attrition occurs between the reporting of alleged sexual offences against children and the obtaining of convictions (pages 2-10).

Important reports – Findings are discussed from two reports which have influenced recent legislative amendments, pilot projects, and further plans for reform in New South Wales: The Experience of Child Complainants of Sexual Abuse in the Criminal Justice System by Dr Christine Eastwood and Professor Wendy Patton of the Queensland University of Technology, released in July 2002; and the Report on Child Sexual Assault Prosecutions by the New South Wales Legislative Council’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice, tabled in November 2002 (pages 11-22).

Legislative changes – A range of statutory amendments that commenced in 2003 are described, for example: the implementation of standard minimum sentences for certain child sexual offences (among other serious offences); the exemption of child sexual assault complainants from attending committal proceedings; the exclusion of periodic detention as a punishment for serious sexual offences, including sexual offences committed against children under the age of 16 years; and clarification that when evidence-in-chief at trial is given by a child in the form of a pre-recorded interview, it should not be played to the court in the presence of the child (pages 23-28).

Specialist child sexual assault court – In March 2003 a pilot program commenced that allows child sexual assault complainants to give evidence by closed circuit television from a remote witness facility at Parramatta, separate from the court house. Some of the other features of the project are: a child-friendly environment; specialist training for judicial officers involved in the pilot; a presumption in favour of using pre-recorded evidence and other special measures; and pre-trial hearings to address the needs of the child and reduce delays. The child sexual assault court is intended to be less traumatic for children than conventional court proceedings (pages 29-32).

Child sex offender registers – New South Wales established a Child Protection Register under the Child Protection (Offenders Registration) Act 2000 , and it has been operational since October 2001. Persons found guilty of murdering a child or committing a sexual offence upon a child must advise police of their personal, employment and motor vehicle details, and their travel intentions. Offenders remain on the register for between 8 years and life depending on the offence. The type of register operating in New South Wales was influenced by the sex offender notification requirements in the United Kingdom, which were introduced by the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (UK). In Australia in September 2002, the Federal Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Chris Ellison, called upon the States and Territories to set up child sex offender registers and develop consistent legislation. In July 2003, the Australasian Police Ministers Council endorsed a national approach, which would facilitate tracking child sex offenders across borders and the exchange of information with other countries (pages 33-40).

Child sex offender orders – During the campaign for the State election in March 2003, Premier Carr announced a plan to introduce child sex offender orders in New South Wales, to restrict the movement of convicted paedophiles in places frequented by children. Sex offender orders in the United Kingdom were introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and may be issued against various sexual offenders by the Magistrates’ Court when it is satisfied that an order is necessary to protect the public from serious harm. The Sexual Offences Bill 2003 proposes to restructure sex offender orders, creating three categories: Sexual Offences Prevention Orders, Risk of Sexual Harm Orders, and Foreign Travel Orders. The Sexual Offences Bill passed the House of Lords on 17 June 2003, and had completed the Committee stage in the House of Commons at the time of writing (pages 41-43).

Paedophiles approaching children on the internet – The Carr Government in March 2003 announced that it would create a new criminal offence to target people who contact children on the internet with the ulterior motive of sexually abusing them. The United Kingdom is in the process of introducing the offence of ‘Meeting a child following sexual grooming’, which will apply to an adult who meets (or travels with the intention of meeting) a child under 16 years, if the adult has communicated with the child on at least two previous occasions and intends to commit a sexual offence against the child. The new offence is another initiative of the Sexual Offences Bill 2003 (pages 44-48).