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Sweeping reform aimed at protecting women

Written by on May 15, 2024

Another state is making moves to protect family violence, sexual assault and harassment victims, as Victoria proposes changes to defamation and evidence laws.

The Attorney-General and Legal Aid Victoria say current defamation laws have a chilling effect on reporting sexual abuse or harassment, with some victim-survivors not reporting crime for fear of being subjected to potential defamation proceedings.

The Bill would make victims of sexual assault and harassment immune to defamation lawsuits.

Police Minister Anthony Carbines introduced the Bill on Wednesday that would amend at least 16 different bits of legislation.

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes previously said the reform would shield anyone who made a report to police, giving total immunity if their alleged perpetrator tried to bring a defamation suit against them.

“We know how hard it can be for victim-survivors to report what happened to them – these reforms remove some of the barriers they face in their bravery by coming forward,” Ms Symes said in a statement.

“With these changes, we’re making sure our justice system responds better to serious offending like family violence and sexual assault and is more accessible to all Victorians.”

The reform has been framed as adaptation to an ever-evolving online landscape. Reports made to the media will not be covered under the change.

The Bill will “clarify the liability and responsibility” of digital intermediaries such as search engines and social media platforms when a third party uses their online service to publish defamatory content, the Attorney-General explains in the statement.

The Bill is not available to the public until its second reading on May 28.

The reforms “will also ensure police-issued body worn camera footage can continue to be used” as evidence in court cases involving a family violence offence or family violence intervention order.

The footage evidence could replace the need for victims to make a formal written statement, but victims will still be able to provide one if they wish.

Victoria Legal Aid says the threat of defamation inhibits reporting crime.

“Among numerous challenges and barriers these clients face, some are hesitant to report sexual harassment because of the fear of being sued for defamation,” Legal Aid equity law manager Melanie Schleiger said.

“The silencing effect caused by the actual or perceived threat of a defamation action results in the under-reporting of sexual harassment and threatens the safety of women at work and in the community,” Ms Schleiger said.

In the lead-up to Tuesday budget, the federal government announced a $925m five-year Leaving Violence Program, which includes a $5000 payment to someone fleeing violence.

The Victorian Bill has been introduced a day after the NSW government revealed details of a major planned overhaul to the state’s bail laws, designed to better protect the victims of domestic violence.

The reforms include reversing the presumption of bail for serious domestic violence offences to make it harder for accused offenders to get bail. Serious domestic violence offences include sexual assault, strangulation with intent to commit another offence and kidnapping.

This will also include coercive control when it becomes a criminal offence on July 1.

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