The prosecution process can be very challenging and stressful for victims of crime. To assist victims of crime and their families, the CDPP provides a specialised Witness Assistance Service (WAS). The WAS is staffed by qualified social workers who work with prosecutors to ensure that victims of crime and their families are provided with the information and support they need during the prosecution process.
Supporting victims during prosecutions
Ben* was 17 when his case was referred to the CDPP and, in turn, the WAS. Ben’s case involved allegations he had been sexually abused by his grandfather over a number of years, both in Australia and overseas. The WAS officer and the prosecutor contacted Ben and his family very soon after the matter was referred to the CDPP, and asked them if they’d like to be kept informed about the prosecution process, and consulted about certain prosecution decisions. Like most victims of crime, Ben and his family said they would very much like to be kept informed and consulted during all stages of the prosecution.
Because Ben and his parents lived overseas, the WAS officer and the prosecutor stayed in touch using Skype, email and telephone calls. At one stage, Ben and his family made a brief trip to Australia for personal reasons. In consultation with the prosecution team, they made the most of a valuable opportunity to meet face-to-face and came into the CDPP office on a weekend. Being able to meet prosecutors and WAS officers in person helps victims to build rapport and trust with the team looking after them, and provides them with important opportunities to raise any questions or concerns they may have.
During initial court proceedings, Ben’s grandfather entered a plea of not guilty to the charges. This meant the matter was listed for a trial, which would require Ben to attend court and give evidence. Ben and his family were provided with information and support regarding their role as witnesses in the lead up to the trial. However, shortly before the trial began, plea negotiation discussions between the CDPP prosecutor and the lawyer representing Ben’s grandfather occurred, and Ben’s grandfather indicated he was willing to plead guilty to certain charges.
In accordance with the CDPP’s policy obligations towards victims of crime, the prosecutor consulted Ben and his family about the plea offer. Ultimately, Ben and his family were supportive of the matter being resolved in this way, and Ben’s grandfather pleaded guilty to numerous child sexual offences. Accepting the plea offer meant there would be no trial, and therefore no need for Ben to give evidence in relation to the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. When someone has pleaded guilty to an offence, the court then needs to sentence them for their crime.
The WAS officer and prosecutor explained the sentencing process to Ben and his family, including Ben’s right to create a Victim Impact Statement. With support from his WAS officer, Ben decided that he would create one, and also indicated that he would like to read it aloud to the court himself. Ben and his parents flew to Australia to attend the sentencing hearing where he read his Victim Impact Statement aloud to the court. This was a very significant and emotional experience for both Ben and his family. The WAS officer attended the sentencing proceedings with Ben and his family and provided support throughout this process.
Because sentencing proceedings took place over a number of dates, Ben and his family left Australia before the actual sentence was handed down. The WAS officer and the police officer kept the family informed of the court proceedings during their absence, including the final sentence handed down by the court. After a prosecution process that ran for two years, Ben’s grandfather was jailed for a number of years.
The WAS supported Ben and his family every step of the way during this traumatic journey; support for which they were very grateful.
Understanding the role of prosecutors and the WAS
When the most vulnerable witnesses and victims of crime like Ben are referred to the WAS, it generally means the police are involved and something traumatic has happened to them. They could be victims of terrorism, violent and sexual offences or slavery. More often than not, the WAS works with children who have been exploited by offenders using technology in order to gain access to children and commit sexual offences against them.
In 2018–19, 376 new referrals were made to the WAS by prosecutors working for the CDPP. Of these, 301 involved matters concerning online child sex exploitation offences.
Victims are usually referred to the WAS at the beginning of the prosecution process. For most victims of crime and their families, this process is completely new and unfamiliar, and can cause fear, confusion and intimidation.
‘Our first contact with people is to introduce ourselves, carefully explaining who we are and what we do,’ WAS Manager Caroline Steel said. ‘We ask whether or not they want to be kept informed in relation to the prosecution process, and consulted about certain decisions that our office [the CDPP] might make about their case.
‘Often people think it is the police that handle their case all the way through the court process. So we spend time explaining the difference between the role police have in investigating the alleged crime, and the role the CDPP will play in terms of the actual prosecution. We also explain that the CDPP represents the community, and ultimately holds responsibility for making various prosecution decisions regarding the matter they are involved in.’
The WAS provides victims with access to a range of services, including information on the Victims and Witnesses website.
What victims can expect from the WAS
In the early stages of the prosecution the WAS staff provide victims of crime with a copy of our Victims of Crime Policy, which sets out the CDPP’s obligations to them. The policy makes it clear that in all prosecutions, victims of crime should be treated with courtesy, compassion, cultural sensitivity and respect for their dignity and entitlements.
‘It’s empowering for people to know what their entitlements are,’ Caroline said. ‘If we help them understand what their entitlements are in the early stages of meeting them, it can really help to build rapport. It is also important that victims understand why we’re involved, what we’re doing and what they can expect from us.’
‘When we initially speak with a victim of crime they frequently express a lack of knowledge or understanding about what is happening with their case. The WAS officer will provide them with an update in relation to the prosecution proceedings that have occurred. We will also seek their views about whether they would like our Office to keep them informed about how the prosecution is progressing, and consulted with about prosecution decisions.
‘The vast majority of victims of crime say that they do wish to be kept informed. We note these views and ensure that prosecutors are also aware of them. We also provide victims of crime with written information regarding their case and information resources designed to help them to understand the process involved.’
The role and views of children
The WAS staff have direct contact with child victims and their parents. According to Caroline, it is not unusual for parents to tell WAS officers that their child doesn’t want to discuss the prosecution. However, this doesn’t always mean that young people are not interested in the prosecution process, and sometimes their reluctance to discuss the case with their parents is due to shame, or fear and embarrassment regarding the circumstances of the offending.
The majority of children referred to the WAS are in their mid-teens, and when talking to WAS officers they are very interested in the prosecution process and state that they do want to be kept informed. They also have many questions and concerns regarding the role they might play in relation to the court proceedings. Common questions include: Is the accused in jail or on bail? Is the accused allowed to contact them? Do they need to come to court? If so, will they have to be in the same room as the accused?
WAS officers always let parents know they are interested in speaking with their child in order to keep them informed, seek their views and answer any questions they may have. ‘It’s important to give children a voice where possible,’ Caroline said. ‘It’s also important for them to know that we’ll be available to support them throughout the prosecution process, however long that takes.’
The good news
Conviction rates for people charged with child sex offences are high. During 2018–19, all of those prosecuted to finality by the CDPP for this crime type were convicted, and the majority received an immediate custodial sentence.
Last year a child abuse case attracted a landmark sentence, when Adelaide paedophile Ruecha Tokputza (31) was jailed for 40 years and three months, with a non-parole period of 28 years in May 2019.
Described as ‘a child’s worst nightmare’ by Judge Chapman in the District Court of South Australia, Mr Tokputza abused at least 13 children and pleaded guilty to 50 charges, including the persistent sexual abuse of children and possessing tens of thousands of images and videos of child exploitation material.
In January 2020, another offender, Boris Kunsevitsky (53) was jailed for 35 years with a non-parole period of 28 years. He pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 44 children over 16 years across at least four countries, and to possessing thousands of images and videos of child exploitation material.
In order to help those who’ve been affected by this crime type, as well as other vulnerable victims and witnesses, the CDPP has a website dedicated to explaining the legal process for victims, witnesses, carers and support people. Developed in response to recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the website is broken up into four main sections: your role in the prosecution, the prosecution process, going to court, and support and entitlements. It includes video presentations and can be translated into more than 100 languages.
The content, format and functionality of the site was informed by feedback from victims and witnesses who had recently been involved with CDPP prosecutions, as well as others closely involved in this area of the CDPP’s work.
Obtaining justice for victims of crime involves a number of government agencies, police, support workers and the victims and witnesses themselves. The CDPP remains committed to ensuring their journey through the justice system is as smooth as possible, offering appropriate information, support and guidance when it is needed.
*Name and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of the victim and his family.