I make a brief contribution to debate on to the Stronger Communities Legislation Amendment (Crimes) Bill 2020, mainly to address provisions in schedule 1.4 that amend the definition of what constitutes a "reasonable excuse" for failing to report information on alleged sexual offences and domestic violence offences. This is an important reform which will mean counsellors, family members or friends of adult survivors of sexual or domestic abuse no longer risk being prosecuted if they do not report the crimes to authorities at the survivor's behest. Currently if someone knows of information that might lead to a serious indictable offence and choose not to report it to authorities without a "reasonable excuse" they can be jailed for up to five years.
While we need to strengthen the systems of reporting of sexual abuse and domestic violence, it is also critical that we respect the wishes of survivors. This bill clearly acknowledges that currently survivors may choose not to report crimes if they believe the person they are disclosing to risks being prosecuted themselves or may act against their wishes and report the crime to police without their consent. In its submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission's University Sexual Assault and Harassment Project the organisation End Rape on Campus explains the reasons why survivors may choose not to report as follows:
In our experience, there are many reasons why survivors may not want police involvement, including fear of perpetrator reprisals, concern for the perpetrator or their family, knowledge or experience of the ineffectual and traumatic nature of the criminal justice system, wanting to seek redress more locally, and a need to address their more immediate needs first.
The submission also notes:
Pressure to report to police, campus security, or any other group can exacerbate feelings of powerlessness and compound existing trauma.
While the current law seeks to ensure the protection of survivors it has in many ways had the perverse effect of contributing to the significant underreporting of crimes and keeping survivors from accessing the crisis, mental health and social support they need. I also note the concerns of Karen Willis, executive officer at Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia, that the current law could wrongly implicate staff, frontline workers or anyone who receives a disclosure, adding stress to what is already a deeply distressing situation for any frontline worker. This bill removes any perceived conflict between that worker's legal responsibilities and their responsibilities to the welfare of their client. More broadly this bill ensures survivors can be in control of the response their report, with agency to determine how it is managed and thereby empowered to access the support they need.
The current laws can have a particularly perverse outcome on institutions such as universities informing their own reporting structures. This includes the fact that many universities insist they cannot act on reports of sexual assault unless police are notified, while other universities determine that they cannot act once police are notified. Reporting on university campuses is further complicated by the sensitivities around the presence of police on campus and the role that campus security can play in ensuring student welfare, as well as the fact that survivors and perpetrators can often continue to be in close proximity following a report being made. I note previous discussion in this House in relation to colleges and the responsibility this Parliament has over some of their governance arrangements.
It is important that student survivors of sexual assault or harassment have certainty around how their report is being managed. This bill will remove an important barrier to survivors reporting assaults and seeking the critical support they need. I commend the Attorney General for introducing this important legislation and acknowledge the critical work of community advocates including Karen Willis, OAM, and Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia. I also acknowledge the important work of campus advocates End Rape on Campus, the National Union of Students Women's Department, women's officers on university campuses across this State and the many survivors who have told their stories and fought for change. We have much more to do to ensure they are safe at home, at work, on our campuses and in our streets, but I trust that this bill gives them some certainty that they will have greater control of their story. I commend the bill to the House.