Justice

New sexual violence data tells same, bleak story

The MeToo movement has put a spotlight on sexual assault, but new statistics show not much has changed in terms of outcomes. Laura Walters reports.

For the first time, the Government has specific statistics on how many sexual violence cases make it through to an investigation, prosecution and conviction - reaffirming what survivors, and those working in the sector, have known for a long time.

The data has come from all sexual assault complaints made to police between 2014 and 2018 and analysed by the Ministry of Justice. The idea is to provide a baseline for measuring the Government’s work in the area of sexual violence, and ultimately, holding them to account.

Jan Logie, Under-Secretary to the Minister of Justice and the person responsible for leading the Government response to sexual and family violence issues, said it was shocking there had been no data and analysis of this kind before now.

While this is the first time this level of analysis has been carried out, the results do not tell a new story.

The high rates of attrition and low rates of conviction are consistent with statistics put forward in 2009 as part of the Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence.

They are also consistent with the research of academics such as Victoria University of Wellington criminologist Jan Jordan.

Survivors and those working in the sexual and family violence sectors already experience these statistics.

When Logie launched the new work at the Medical Sexual Assault Clinicians Aotearoa (MEDSAC) conference, she said much of the topline data was “sadly, almost considered general knowledge”.

But those who spoke to Newsroom say this type of analysis can only help when it comes to educating the public, having more informed discussions, and a benchmark to measure success.

The broad results showed out of the 23,739 cases of sexual assaults reported to police over the four-year period, 31 percent made it to court.

Of those, 11 percent resulted in a conviction, and in 6 percent of cases a prison sentence was imposed.

The statistics showed there was a 21 percent increase in the number of cases reported to police between 2015 and 2018.

However, taking into account all the cases that were not reported to police (the majority) the conviction rate sat at about 1 percent.

The statistics also showed in the majority of the cases (covering both current and historical incidents), the offending happened against children and young people.

“It may take time, but I want to assure you that we are going to be relentless in turning this around, because people deserve better and as a country, we deserve better.”

While the analysis made for predictably grim reading, there were a couple of positive trends.

The number of cases that proceeded to prosecution had increased by more than a third (34 percent) between 2017 and 2018.

That was thanks largely to a change in police practices, particularly the dedicated sexual violence team, quality control through case review, and the adoption of the updated Solicitor-General’s prosecution guidelines.

There was also a continuing downward trend in the number of cases coded by police as 'no crime'.

These ‘K3’, or 'no crime' cases represented those not progressed to investigation or prosecution, because police deemed there was 'no offence', essentially saying a woman had made a false allegation.

In the past, the incorrect use of this code meant the number of K3 cases was falsely inflated, which backed up the pervasive myth a significant number of women lied about sexual assault, or made false allegations.

Research from Victoria University of Wellington’s Jordan showed that in 1997, almost 40 percent of sexual violence cases were mis-categorised or misrepresented as K3 by police.

In 2015, this number dropped to 15 percent, with a subsequent review of K3 cases further pulling that percentage down to 9 percent - in line with international rates.

This latest report has K3 cases decreasing from 17 percent in 2014, to just 2 percent in 2018.

While these last statistics provided some hope, Logie said the outcomes were not good enough for survivors, or for New Zealand.

“We have to do better for people, and we have to be accountable for our actions,” she said.

“It may take time, but I want to assure you that we are going to be relentless in turning this around, because people deserve better and as a country, we deserve better.”

“Having developed this methodology and this level of data has contributed to greater knowledge, more progressive policy, a better ability to do research and more informed public conversations – which all contributes to change.”

University of Waikato Faculty of Law sexual violence expert Paulette Benton-Greig said fundamentally, the new data showed there had not been much of a change in the outcomes over the past 10 years - it was largely consistent with similar research produced a decade ago.

Having good statistics would not solve the problem, but they were important in order to make good policy, and do good research. Thirty-five years ago this type of data wasn’t available, she said.

“Having developed this methodology and this level of data has contributed to greater knowledge, more progressive policy, a better ability to do research and more informed public conversations – which all contributes to change.”

While police practices may have improved, the criminal trial process remained a barrier to achieving better outcomes, which had an effect on all other aspects of the system, she said.

The Government was currently trying to address this issue through its sexual violence court pilot, and through legislative changes.

Proposed law changes, which were due to be introduced to Parliament before the end of the year and passed before next year’s election, included six core changes “to ensure that the justice system, in prosecuting sexual violence cases, does no more harm to victims and survivors”.

They would see a tightening of rules around evidence relating to a complainant’s sexual history. Currently, a survivor’s sexual history can be used in an effort to discredit them.

The changes would also include how survivors give evidence, while giving judges greater power to intervene to stop unfair and inappropriate questioning.

These proposed changes have been described by advocates and others working in the sector as long-overdue, and necessary to improve what survivor Louise Nicholas describes as a “brutal” criminal justice process.

The death of British backpacker Grace Millane was a galvanising moment for New Zealand's MeToo movement, but shows the country still has a long way to go. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

But new data or changes to court processes alone couldn't fix the country’s epidemic.

Benton-Greig said the problems and the solutions were complex, so changes needed to happen at many points in the system - it was a ‘both, and’ situation.

Changes needed to happen to improve the experience of the complainant, while also tackling issues within the court process and justice system, and at a wider societal level.

When the current siloed nature of the system was raised during the MEDSAC conference, Logie pointed to her joint venture, where 10 core government agencies were working together to prevent and address sexual violence and family violence.

No single agency or department can fix this on their own. We have to work together, work differently and work across the whole justice system so every person harmed can get the resolution they need, she said.

That work, which had already led to a suite of changes and proposed changes, came with an injection of $320 million in this year’s Wellbeing Budget for sexual and family violence prevention and support, as the two problems were often interconnected.

While these changes were a step in the right direction, a continual flow of stories showed New Zealand still had a long way to go – both in terms of instances of sexual assault and how the criminal justice system and society reacted.

On Monday, the Grace Millane murder trial will begin. The death of the 22-year-old British backpacker was a focal point for New Zealand’s MeToo movement.

And a report from Maria Dew QC on her investigation into the allegations of sexual assault by a Labour Party staffer against a Labour volunteer is due later this month. The case saw Labour Party President Nigel Haworth resign over the handling of the case, but throughout the public discussion, the survivor was rarely at the centre and her public testimony via The Spinoff was questioned and discredited by a number of powerful men.

Benton-Greig said more broadly, New Zealand needed to reduce, and challenge, rape culture and its high rates of sexual abuse of children and young people. If there was less sexual violence, then there would also be fewer issues with the criminal justice process.

Where to get help:

National Rape Crisis helpline: 0800 88 33 00

Safe to Talk national helpline 0800 044 334 or www.safetotalk.nz

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.

Become a Supporter

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners