Families of deceased sexual assault victims would need court order to speak out under Victoria law

The families of deceased sexual assault victims would need a court order to speak publicly

The families of deceased sexual assault victims would need a court order to speak publicly about what happened to their loved ones under a new bill introduced to the Victorian parliament.



a sign on the side of a building: Photograph: Erik Anderson/AAP


© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Erik Anderson/AAP

The legislation, to be debated this week, seeks to fix botched laws enacted in February that gagged assault survivors from publicly talking about their experiences without a court order.

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However, the bill will also “clarify” existing laws that prevent the publication of identifying details after a victim’s death, according to the government.

The government says it will pursue further reforms next year that would “minimise or remove the need for a court-based approval process” for the families of deceased victims.

But in the meantime, families would still need to seek a court order to speak out about what happened to their loved ones. The Australian, which first reported on the story on Monday, said potential penalties were a fine of up to $3,304 or four months in jail.

Related: Victoria to ‘urgently’ fix law that stops sexual assault survivors speaking out

The government argues the legislation only confirms the current law. But according to critics, media lawyers had previously interpreted the ambiguity in the law as allowing the right to publish the details of assault cases where the victim is deceased.

At the same time, advocates argue the process for obtaining a court order to win the right to speak out can be expensive and traumatising.

Journalist Nina Funnell, who created the Let Us Speak campaign and first reported on the potential consequences of the legislation, argued in a News.com.au opinion piece on Monday that the law would see perpetrators take “centre stage”. Funnell said the laws would have gagged the families of such victims as Jill Meagher, Eurydice Dixon and Aiia Maasarwe.

“While this new bill will partially amend that older gag law, unfortunately, it will essentially do so, by replacing that gag law with an alternate gag law: one which will muzzle the families of deceased rape victims instead of living ones,” Funnell wrote.

Victoria’s attorney general, Jill Hennessy, said the proposed laws would “not stop the naming of deceased victims by the media or more importantly, by the families of people who have died”.

“The advice from experts and advocates has been clear: reforms addressing the ability to speak on behalf of deceased victims are complex and we need to take time to get it right, and that any reforms take account of any wishes victims expressed before they died,” she said in a statement.



a sign on the side of a building: A new bill to be introduced in Victorian parliament would still require families of sexual assault victims to get a court order to speak out about their loved ones.


© Photograph: Erik Anderson/AAP
A new bill to be introduced in Victorian parliament would still require families of sexual assault victims to get a court order to speak out about their loved ones.

Related: Australian women in their late teens more likely to be victims of sexual assault

The government’s position is that the law does not create a blanket ban on the use of victims’ names, but a court order would be required when identifying deceased victims and discussing the details of the assault.

Hennessy told parliament this month the government planned to develop further reforms “to minimise or remove the need for a court-based approval process” in the case of deceased victims.

But she claimed that without those reforms in place, there were risks if “protection of the deceased victim-survivor’s identity were to be lifted immediately”.

This could include requiring the families of deceased victims to seek “continuing protection of the victim’s identity during the grieving period immediately following the death”.

The shadow attorney-general, Edward O’Donohue, said the government needed to fix its bill.

“Labor, in its haste to fix one of its mistakes, may have now created another,” he said. “This is a serious and important matter and Labor must fix this mess before the bill is debated in parliament on Wednesday.”

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