Human Rights group welcomes review of Victoria’s rape laws

Gender stereotyping and discrimination undermine women’s rights to equality before the law and a fair trial, particularly in the case of sexual offences.

In response to the Victorian Department of Justice’s review of sexual offences, the HRLC has expressed support for proposed changes to sexual assault legislation and is urging the Department to consider further changes to ensure adjudication in rape trials is fair, impartial and free from gender stereotyping and discrimination.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Emily Christie said laws that criminalise sexual assault and govern the trial of sexual assault cases engage a range of human rights, including the right to recognition and equality before the law and the right to a fair and public hearing by an impartial court or tribunal.

“Victoria has an obligation, under international law and Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights, to ensure women are protected from gender stereotyping and discrimination and are treated equally under the law,” said Ms Christie.

The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women has stated that ''stereotyping affects women’s right to a fair and just trial and that the judiciary must take caution not to create inflexible standards of what women or girls should be or . . . have done when confronted with a situation of rape based merely on preconceived notions of what defines a rape victim''.

In October 2013, the Department of Justice released a consultation paper outlining a number of options for reforming laws relating to sexual offences, including creating a new requirement that if an accused person’s defence relies on a belief that the alleged victim had consented, then that belief must be held on reasonable grounds.

The HRLC was also pleased to see that the proposals go some way towards combatting rape myths, discrimination and stereotypes.

Ms Christie said when introducing new concepts such as ‘reasonableness’ into the offence of rape, the Government should take steps to ensure that this new element will be understood and implemented free from stereotyping and discrimination.

The HRLC has recommended that:

  • Juries should be provided with directions as to what amounts to reasonable or unreasonable grounds for holding a belief as to consent.
  • Greater use of expert evidence on sexual violence and gender stereotypes should be considered. 
  • The judiciary, medical officers, lawyers and law enforcement officers should undergo training on understanding crimes of rape and other sexual offences in a gender-sensitive manner.

A copy of the HRLC submission can be found here.

For a more detailed look at the various issues raised by the consultation paper, we recommend you read the submission from the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres.