A ray of hope for all survivors of gender-based violence as sexual offences courts are officially signed into regulation.
Although South Africa has some of the highest rates of reported sexual offences, it also has a criminal justice system that boasts innovative inventions to address this. One such example is the establishment of sexual offences courts.
Sexual offences courts are specialised courts in which survivors receive support services and cases are prosecuted by specialists in the field. These courts have theoretically being rolled out around the country but, thus far there has been no legislated framework for them, so the services they offer are not uniform. The requirements for a court to be declared a sexual offences court have been unclear.
Section 55A, the amendment to the Act, remained in limbo for several years, together with the regulations that would give it detail. The Department of Justice has now confirmed that the amendment to the Act has come into operation on 31 January 2020 and the regulations will be gazetted by the seventh of February.
7 February 2020 marks a momentous day for Rape Crisis’ RSJC team and for South Africa as a whole. 7 February is the day that the regulations for sexual offences courts are officially signed and gazetted.
Sexual offences courts regulations
The signing of these regulations is a strong sign of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s commitment to a stronger criminal justice system and the roll out of sexual offences courts and specialised forensic units promises a ray of hope for survivors of gender-based violence.
The more sexual offences that are reported, investigated and prosecuted, the more chance we will have of stemming this violence in our society.
The new regulations outline three key elements that all sexual offences courts must have:
– Specialist infrastructure: There are specifications for the rooms and layouts within the courts that need to be adhered to. For example, all sexual offences courts must have a separate waiting area for the complainants. Survivors of rape and other sexual offences often find it very difficult to navigate the court building. When survivors have to be at a court building in order to testify about a rape in which their privacy and bodily integrity were undermined, it can be extremely distressing and traumatising. Therefore, the waiting area for survivors who are coming to testify is a very important component of a sexual offences court.
– Specialist staff: When survivors of rape enter the criminal justice system they need to be supported and treated kindly and to receive information about the system and about the specific case. That means that the people working on a rape or sexual offences case all need to be knowledgeable and to work together. From the police officer who took down her report and investigated her case, to the doctor who examined her, the court supporter who supported her, and the prosecutor, magistrate and court preparation officer who sought justice for her, they all need to listen to the survivor and to work together in seeking justice while having the knowledge to be able to process and prosecute her case correctly and as efficiently as possible.
– Specialist services: All sexual offences courts must provide access to a court supporter. The court supporter is someone who is appointed by a Non-Profit Organisation and who has been trained to fulfil this role. The court supporter plays a dual role in that they help the complainant to become familiar with the court proceedings and layout of the court and help to reduce the secondary trauma experienced by the survivor. Their primary focus is to provide psycho-social support to the survivor. It is therefore extremely important that, where a court supporter is available, they are the primary support in sexual offences matters. One of the main roles of the court supporter is to understand that, while testifying in the trial or consulting with the prosecutor, the complainant may experience the same traumatic thoughts and feelings that they experienced at the time of the rape. The court supporter knows this and supports the complainant by helping to carry this heavy load. After the consultation or testimony, court supporters provide a safe place for complainants and witnesses to debrief from the traumatic thoughts and feelings that they experience after testifying etc.
We need the proper implementation of sexual offences courts to restore survivors’ confidence in the system, and increase their willingness to come forward.
The Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign advocates for the planned and funded rollout of sexual offences courts. These courts are the key to restoring faith in the criminal justice system.
Sexual offences courts are specialized courts that specifically deal with sexual offences and provide special services to survivors. These courts are sensitive to the survivor and help to; reduce the trauma, speed up cases, deliver better court judgements thanks to better skilled court personnel and better support for survivors, increase reporting of rape and increase convictions.
Contact: Jeanne Bodenstein
Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust
021 447 1467