The New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa believes the opportunity has been missed to make some much-needed improvements to the Sexual Violence Legislation Bill following the Justice select committee’s recent report back to Parliament. In a letter to Justice Minister Andrew Little, the Law Society laid out its concerns and asked the Minister to consider introducing further amendments to the Bill before it is passed into law.
The Sexual Violence Legislation Bill is a significant reform of the criminal justice system, intended to reduce the retraumatisation, which sexual violation complainants can experience in the criminal trial process.
The Law Society supports efforts to ease the burden on vulnerable complainants of giving evidence in sexual violence cases. However, changes to the law must strike the right balance between ensuring complainants are treated fairly while not compromising defendant’s rights.
“We acknowledge this is a difficult balance. It is necessary to ensure that any reform guarantees complainants are treated respectfully and fundamental rights and freedoms, primarily the right to a fair trial, are maintained” says Law Society President Tiana Epati.
“There has been a great deal of public debate about the reform proposals and even amongst members of the legal profession there is division about the merits of some of the proposed changes, such as pre-recording of cross-examination.
The reforms have been the subject of debate for many years and the Law Society has contributed to the discussion. All indications to date have been that the Bill will proceed, and the Law Society has therefore focused on ensuring the new provisions will be clear and workable and not undermine the right to a fair trial.”
The Law Society made a comprehensive submission to the Justice select committee, recommending several changes to the proposed process for complainants to give evidence in sexual violence trials, and directly addressed the select committee on some key concerns in February.
“Our recommended changes to the Bill had been very carefully evaluated by experienced criminal practitioners from both sides of the bar, and we believe were constructive, balanced and necessary,” says Ms Epati.
“We were disappointed to see they were largely not addressed in the committee’s report. We remain concerned the Bill will cause serious difficulties in practice unless amendments are made in the House.”
In writing to the Justice Minister, the Law Society emphasised its primary interest which is to ensure the legislation achieves the right balance and is workable in practice.
“We also raised concerns about the impact of these reforms in the wider context of a criminal justice system under immense pressure. We are particularly concerned that the reforms will place extra strain on the criminal justice system where resources are already stretched thin.”
Concerns have also been raised by other sections of the legal community. The Law Society considers there is still an opportunity to make changes to the Bill before it becomes law.