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Watch Rape Crisis Explain Why It's Against 'Hybrid' Sexual Offences Courts

Activists are concerned that a proposed "hybrid" model for Sexual Offences Courts could hamper access to "survivor-centred justice".

23/05/2017 09:51 SAST | Updated 23/05/2017 09:54 SAST

Organisations seeking justice for survivors of sexual offences have warned against a proposed hybrid model for Sexual Offences Courts.

Deputy Justice Minister John Jeffrey last Monday aid the Justice and Constitutional Development Department finalised a partnership with Unicef to develop a cheaper Sexual Offences Court model, News24 reported on Thursday. Jeffrey made the announcement at the unveiling of the Thambalethu Sexual Offences Court in George.

Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust (RCCTT) director Kathleen Dey told HuffPost SA last week some magistrates were concerned about not being able to hear cases not related to sexual offences under the current model.

The RCCTT and Women's Legal Centre met with magistrates on Thursday afternoon to discuss their concerns with the proposed amendment to the Judicial Matters Amendment Act, which would likely "dilute the current model". It could also decrease people's access to the justice system, and potentially lower levels of successful prosecution, said Dey.

"If they pass the amendment [to allow for hybrid courts] then they will be diluting the model. We want them to leave the Act as it is," Dey said.

Dey said the meeting held on Thursday "was a really excellent and extremely collegial meeting".

"We are impressed by efforts to continue the rollout of Sexual Offences Courts," she said.

The RCCTT said they acknowledged the difficulties faced in securing adequate resources in rolling out and sustaining Sexual Offences Courts but they "object to the possibility of magistrates being seconded to unrelated cases".

Dey said a major challenge confronting the justice department includes how to allocate resources to these courts in urban and rural areas given the vast discrepancies in reported cases between the two.

"Cases in urban centres are particularly high and there are not enough resources to cope with the backlog, while in rural areas there are very few cases brought before the court which makes it hard to justify resources in these courts," Dey said.

While there was "no disagreement about the necessity of these courts", Dey said, "we have reached somewhat of an impasse and will have to try and reach a reasonable compromise on the way forward".

'Little faith in the system'

Dey said progress towards ending the sexual offences epidemic in South Africa required a justice system that offered special care for survivors of sexual offences and domestic violence.

"In general, you find a lot of victims don't report their crimes because they don't have faith in the justice system because the system doesn't support them properly," she said.

"We are asking for a system that provides special support in bringing survivors' cases to trial because otherwise they may face intimidation or they are so traumatised and haven't received any emotional support, so they break down and can't tell their story."

"To acknowledge that we need special care is absolutely fundamental for a justice system that is going to successfully prosecute these cases," Dey said.

'Higher rates of conviction in Sexual Offences Courts'

A 2014 justice department report noted Sexual Offences Courts provided care and support for survivors, and recorded higher conviction rates of sex offenders. Fifty-seven regional courts nationwide were to be upgraded to Sexual Offences Courts over a three-year period from 2013.

A second phase rollout, the report said, would see the re-establishment of over 100 courts over the next decade from 2013.

In these courts, prosecutors and magistrates received special training and courtrooms were fitted with private testifying and waiting rooms, as well as two-way circuit televisions for victims to identify the accused without entering the courtroom. Other mandatory features included "anatomically correct dolls" to help children identify body parts and demonstrate alleged sexual acts without causing secondary trauma.

The report noted a major challenge with using ad hoc contracted intermediaries, usually from NGOs, who provide various support for victims. High turnover of these intermediaries and general funding shortages are listed as as major obstacles to successful rollout of these courts.

'Media attention scant'

Dey said media reports on Sexual Offences Courts and services for survivors of sexual offences continued to fall by the wayside as attention was diverted to other political issues.

"What happens is that government then says there isn't enough money [for these services] and they too focus their attention elsewhere".

Representatives of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust will on Tuesday attend a portfolio committee meeting at Parliament where they will attempt to "reach a reasonable compromise".