Royal Commission reflections: Access to justice for victims and survivors (Week 1)

The Royal Commission’s key findings and recommendations

Throughout October we will be reflecting on how the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) has helped to improve access to justice for victims and survivors. This week, we look at the Royal Commission’s recommendations to make justice systems fairer and more effective for survivors.

The evidence and accounts victims and survivors gave to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) have had a significant impact on Australian society and the lives of Australian children. They have shed light on the extent of child sexual abuse in Australian institutions, and on the devastating and lifelong impacts on victims and survivors. They have underlined the need for more effective responses and supports.

The sexual abuse of children is a serious human rights violation and a horrific crime. But all too often, victims and survivors have faced significant barriers in seeking to access justice. The Royal Commission found that despite their immense courage in coming forward, many survivors were not believed, or faced legal processes that were highly traumatising and weighted against them. Other survivors, often silenced by fear or shame, were never able to come forward and seek the justice they deserved.

The Royal Commission recognised that the ability of survivors to obtain justice has important benefits not only for survivors, but also for the community. Justice systems can:

  • Hold to account those people who commit, facilitate or conceal abuse.
  • Increase community awareness of child sexual abuse.
  • Demonstrate to survivors that they have been heard and believed.
  • Provide compensation or redress to survivors to help alleviate the impacts of their abuse.
  • Encourage other survivors to come forward.
  • Prevent further abuse.

To ensure that justice systems are better able to respond to victims and survivors and deliver these benefits, the Royal Commission recommended comprehensive change. The Royal Commission’s recommendations focused on improving three pathways for survivors to access justice:

  1. Criminal justice
  2. Civil litigation
  3. Redress.

Criminal justice

The Royal Commission found that the criminal justice system was failing many victims and survivors. Crimes involving child sexual abuse have lower reporting rates and are less likely to result in a conviction than many other types of crimes. Many survivors are also re-traumatised by their interactions with police and their experiences during criminal trials.

The Royal Commission made 85 recommendations to improve all aspects of the criminal justice response to child sexual abuse, from the initial reporting and investigation of offences, to securing a conviction and appropriate sentences. Key recommendations aimed to:

  • Encourage victims and survivors to come forward — including by ensuring that survivors have access to the information and support they need to make a police report, and addressing structural barriers to reporting.
  • Improve the responses of police and prosecutors — including how they treat and communicate with survivors, how they conduct investigations and interviews, and how they make decisions to charge offenders. The Royal Commission also recommended principles to guide how police respond to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander survivors and survivors living with disability.
  • Strengthen child sexual abuse offences — including by making existing offences more effective and nationally consistent, and introducing new offences, such as those that make it a crime to fail to report or protect a child from institutional child sexual abuse.
  • Make it easier for victims and survivors to give their best evidence — including by introducing special measures to reduce the need for survivors to give evidence in a courtroom, and provide them with support while giving evidence.
  • Improve court processes, timeframes and outcomes — including by improving training and information for judges, juries and legal professionals, reducing delays, and strengthening sentencing for offenders.

Civil litigation

Many survivors who came forward to the Royal Commission believed that justice could not be achieved through the existing civil litigation system. Many felt that the system worked against them and replicated the power imbalance they experienced as children in institutions.

The Royal Commission made 15 recommendations to make civil litigation a more effective way for survivors to get fair compensation for the harm they experienced as children. Key recommendations aimed to:

  • Remove barriers that stop victims and survivors from making a claim — including by removing limitation periods, which prevent legal claims from being made outside a specific time period and which are inconsistent with our understanding of the long time it takes many survivors to disclose abuse.
  • Strengthen laws to ensure that all institutions can be held responsible for abuse — including by removing barriers to suing institutions like churches and sporting clubs and making all institutions liable for child sexual abuse unless they can prove that they took reasonable steps to prevent it.
  • Improve how institutions respond to claims made against them — including by having governments and institutions develop trauma-informed guidelines for responding to claims.

A national redress scheme

The Royal Commission shed light on the many barriers faced by victims and survivors in accessing justice under existing legal and redress processes. It recognised the need for an alternative and fairer avenue for survivors to obtain the justice they deserve.

To achieve this, the Royal Commission recommended that all Australian governments agree to establish an independent and national scheme to provide redress for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission’s view was that redress should include a monetary payment to recognise the wrong survivors had suffered, access to counselling and psychological support, and an individual apology from the institution. Importantly, the Royal Commission emphasised that the scheme should provide equal access and treatment for all survivors and should operate in a survivor-focused and trauma-informed way.

Altogether, the Royal Commission’s recommendations provided a blueprint for how justice systems could be made fairer and more effective for victims and survivors. Join us next week as we reflect on how knowmore has helped to advocate for these important reforms and support survivors to access justice.