Terror in Chch

Victim advocates call for safeguards ahead of gunman’s trial

The man arrested for the Christchurch attack plans to represent himself, something victim advocate Louise Nicholas says should never be allowed to happen.

At his first court appearance on Saturday morning, the 28-year-old Australian citizen was represented by a duty lawyer. He has since relieved the lawyer of his duties, with plans to represent himself at trial.

At this stage, he has been charged with one count of murder, but more charges will follow before his second appearance at the High Court on April 5.

It is expected those giving evidence during the trial will include witnesses of the attack, including family members and friends of those killed, and people who may have been injured in the shootings.

If he cross examines those witnesses – directly asking them questions - there’s a high risk of re-traumatisation and victimisation.

Victim advocates say this needs to be taken into consideration ahead of the trial, and measures put in place to keep those people safe.

It is up to a judge how a trial is conducted and Justice Minister Andrew Little said he would be surprised if the judiciary weren’t alert to the way a trial could be misused, and end up revictimising victims.

“We need to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Victim Advocate Louise Nicholas, who has extensive experience working with rape and sexual violence survivors, said victims should never be put in a position where they were being questioned by the person who had done the harm.

While this was an unprecedented situation, she recalled a case where a survivor of sexual violence chose not to give evidence in a trial after the defendant decided to represent himself.

There were usually safeguards which could be put in place, such as people giving evidence from behind a screen, or via video link, so they did not have to see their attacker, and only see and hear the lawyer.

However, those types of measures would be difficult to implement in this situation, as the defendant and lawyer would be one-and-the-same.

A judge could also stop, or redirect, a line of questioning if they thought it could be harmful to a victim.

Nicholas said she believed in these circumstances, the defendant should be able to direct a trained lawyer to ask questions, but not ask questions of survivors themselves.

Victim Support chief executive Kevin Tso said the organisation would be working with the courts and the justice system to ensure the alleged offender received a fair process, and that the victims critical to the process were kept safe.

As well as “basic human needs”, there were added cultural sensitivities that needed to be considered in the court process, he said.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said the judiciary would be alert to the way a trial could be misused and result in victims being revictimised. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The comments come as the Government considers justice system reform.

Earlier this month, the Government held a victims’ hui to look at how the “offender-centric” system, could better support victims.

“Victims of crime suffer not only harm, loss and trauma from the crimes against them. Many also suffer from a lack of justice and or revictimisation from within our inherited, Westminster, offender-centric, adversarial, criminal justice system,” Chief Victims Advisor Kim McGregor said at the workshop.

“While not all victims are the same... from many victims’ perspectives, it seems there is very little about our current criminal justice system that is just, or is fair.”

A four-week survey completed last month found 57 percent of victims said they had either a poor, or very poor, experience with the system.

Nicholas said the issue of defendants representing themselves, and what that could mean for victims, had not come up during the talks around criminal justice reform, because it was rare.

However, she said she would be discussing this issue with the judiciary in anticipation of the gunman’s trial.

Andrew Little said judges would also put in place measures to make sure the attacker did not use the trial as a platform to spread his views.

“I think we need to be alert to the possibility, the real possibility, that I think a trial in the future could be used as a platform to propound views, as opposed to purely administering justice for the accused,” he said.

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