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Justice for victims of child sexual abuse

Informing policy change and law reform, promoting education and breaking down walls of injustice

Researchers at the University of Sydney Law School have long been at the forefront of informed responses to child sexual abuse. By challenging misconceptions and overcoming barriers to prosecution, victims are now more likely to be heard and accorded justice.

Child sexual abuse is a gross violation of human rights. A robust body of research now clearly demonstrates the link between child sexual abuse and a wide range of psycho-social and physical health consequences.

As stories of institutional misconduct and abuse of power continue to make media headlines, and new cases and historic incidents are brought to light across society – including within families – providing support and finding justice for victims is a growing issue of global concern.

Working with victims, police, prosecutors, courts, law reform agencies and governments, Professor Judy Cashmore and Professor Rita Shackel, along with Professor David Hamer and former colleague Professor Patrick Parkinson, are influencing policy change and law reform that recognises the needs and lived experiences of victims and promotes fair justice processes.

The hard facts

The prosecution of sexual violence faces multiple challenges, particularly when children are involved. This is because:

  • Child sexual abuse is almost always committed in secrecy and without direct witnesses. 
  • The main evidence, and in many cases the only evidence, is the child’s account of what transpired. 
  • Children may be unwilling to disclose the abuse or have difficulty understanding or recounting the events. 
  • Delays in reporting the abuse are common, and many victims do not report it until well into their adult years.

Debunking the misconceptions

Professor Cashmore and Professor Shackel have conducted research and worked extensively throughout their careers with legal and non-legal professionals to build understanding and knowledge, and promote justice for victimised and vulnerable persons. Collectively, their research spans decades, drawing from the fields of law, science, psychology and education.

Professor Shackel is particularly interested in drawing on the lived experiences of victims in order to inform legal and justice reform.

“Lay persons often expect victims to cry out or resist sexual abuse, to complain immediately and to fear or hate an offender,” she explained. “The dynamics that commonly underlie child sexual abuse and victim response however, are much more complex.”

“Victims often have complex and perhaps confused feelings towards their abuser, and will commonly delay in disclosure or complaint, if indeed they ever tell anyone about their experiences of victimisation. Disclosure, if made, is rarely a simple or linear process.”

Professor Shackel has analysed court decisions, alongside the psychological and behavioural patterns displayed by children of sexual abuse. Her findings have encouraged policy change, and informed judges, prosecutors and jurors.

We need to better understand the nuanced experiences of victims, as well as why survivors may have difficulties giving accounts in court, so as to develop processes and rules of evidence that are sufficiently agile to facilitate the best quality evidence to deliver just outcomes.
Professor Shackel

Promoting access to justice

Courtrooms are intimidating, as legal language and lawyers’ questions can be confusing, explains Professor Cashmore. Further, delays also prolong the stress and trauma and limit early access to counselling.

 “The investigation and court processes present a number of challenges for child witnesses in a system which does not provide an equal playing field for them or vulnerable adults,” explained Professor Cashmore.

“Children are required to recount in detail events that may have happened repeatedly or some time ago in response to questions, often framed in complex legal language. They face challenging cross-examination by a lawyer skilled and intent on undermining the child’s credibility.”

Professor Cashmore’s research on children’s experiences of court, and judges’ beliefs about a child’s capacity to give reliable evidence, has informed policy and practice. Along with Professor Shackel, she has provided extensive judicial education to overcome misconceptions about child witnesses.

Professor Cashmore conducted the evaluation of the first use in Australia of CCTV to allow children to testify away from the courtroom and the presence of the accused; devised sample questions to enable child witnesses’ full participation; and contributed substantially to the Children and Young People section in the NSW Equality Before the Law Bench Book, as well as the child witness section in the Sexual Assault Trials Handbook - manuals used by judges conducting trials.

The long road to change

Through their research and advocacy, Professors Cashmore and Professor Shackel, along with Professor Hamer and  Professor Parkinson, have contributed significantly to education, and policy and law reform at a state and national level, including:

The work in this area is long-term and iterative in nature – involving a constant evaluation of the impact of incremental reforms to court processes, systemic and institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

“Sexual violence is a global and universal challenge which society needs to do more to address urgently,” concluded Professor Shackel.

“We need to ensure that those impacted have the means and opportunity to access justice, to vindicate their rights, and to receive every type of support they need.”

Professor Judy Cashmore AO
Professor Judy Cashmore AO
Academic profile

Professor Rita Shackel
Professor Rita Shackel
Academic profile

Professor David Hamer
Professor David Hamer
Academic profile

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