Legislation and regulations to prescribe minimum standards for sexual offences courts in South Africa will be gazetted today and came into operation on 31 January, the presidency announced on Thursday.
The new legislation, signed into operation by President Cyril Ramaphosa, provides for these courts to have certain facilities and measures in place to render services that will better protect complainants, enhance the quality of prosecutions and evidence to be given in sexual offence cases, and minimise secondary trauma for complainants, presidential spokesperson Khuselo Diko said.
Jeanne Bodenstein, from Rape Crisis’ Rape Survivor Justice Campaign, said in a statement that the legal amendments to the Act have been in limbo for several years and the gazetting of both the amendment act and the regulations on 7 February will be a “momentous day” for South Africa.
“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 been 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 so far.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa however signed legislation into law on Thursday to change this. Bodenstein said the “signing of these regulations is a strong sign of Ramaphosa’s commitment to a stronger criminal justice system and the rollout of sexual offences courts and specialised forensic units promises a ray of hope for survivors of gender-based violence”.
She explained that the new regulations outline three key elements that all sexual offences courts must have. These include a separate waiting area for 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,” she added.
According to the regulations, sexual offences courts will also be staffed by specialists.
“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,” Bodenstein said.
She added that all sexual offences courts will also need to employ court supporters.
“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,” she added.
Presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko said these courts will bring relief and justice to survivors of gender-based violence.
“The joint effort by government and civil society against gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) has received a significant impetus with the commencement on 31 January 2020 of the Judicial Matters Second Amendment Act which provides for the establishment of courts dedicated to matters related to sexual offences.
“These focused services are intended to make it easier for complainants to report offences and to give evidence in trials, as a means of deterring potential offenders from breaking the law,” she added.
Sonke Gender Justice’s policy development and advocacy manager, Kayan Leung, said this development was a firm step forward in the fight against gender-based violence. She said these minimum standards for sexual offences courts were very important as not all sexual offences courts around the country offered standardised services.
Using the example of the sexual offences court in Butterworth in the Eastern Cape, she said she had attended the monthly case flow meeting at that court with members of the National Prosecuting Authority, court officials and the South African Police Service.
“We noted the long delays before cases are heard. Butterworth for example has a fully kitted out court – but a magistrate that can only hear cases on rotation every six to eight weeks.”
“There was a glaring gap in the system when it came to sexual offences courts. This will now strengthen the criminal justice system.”
She said the new courts will be complementary to joint efforts between civil society and government to finalise a national road map to address gender-based violence. MC
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