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Making Rights Reality: Access to justice for sexual assault victims with a cognitive impairment or communication difficulties

The Federation is working with the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault and Springvale Monash Legal Service to conduct a pilot program in South Eastern Melbourne to improve access to justice for sexual assault victims with a cognitive impairment or communication difficulties.

Achieving justice for victims of sexual assault with a cognitive impairment or communication difficulties is an enormous challenge for the justice system.

A significant proportion of Victorian adults - around 19% of women and 6% of men - report being victims of sexual assault in crime victim surveys. However, the rates of reporting sexual assault to police and prosecution of sexual assault are extremely low. Only around 13% of all of the sex offences reported in victim surveys across Australia are recorded by police, and less than 1% result in a finding of guilt by a court of a criminal offence.

The vulnerability of people with a cognitive impairment or communication difficulties makes them more likely to be victims of sexual assault, and less likely to report the crimes against them to police or to see those crimes prosecuted.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission, VicHealth, the Sentencing Advisory Council, the Office of the Public Advocate and the Office of Women’s Policy have all variously commented on:

  • the vulnerability of women with disabilities to sexual assault and violence, and to more severe and prolonged abuse;
  • the extremely low rates of prosecution of sexual assault where the victim has a cognitive impairment;
  • the increased disengagement with criminal justice processes for victims with psychiatric disabilities or mental health issues; and
  • the increased likelihood of police disbelieving victims reporting rape where there are mental health issues or psychiatric disability.


Addressing the need

The Victorian Law Reform Commission concluded in 2004 that “it is clear that the criminal justice system offers people with a cognitive impairment very limited protection against sexual assault....However, with adequate assistance many people with a cognitive impairment can tell the police what has happened to them and can give evidence in court.”

Making Rights Reality provides that assistance.

Making Rights Reality is a program to increase access to the justice system for people who have been sexually assaulted and have a cognitive impairment and/or communication difficulties. The program enhances existing services to provide greater accessibility.

The service provides clients with crisis care, counselling, advocacy, legal information and advice, and support through the justice process, including police investigation, prosecution and crimes compensation processes. Communication support, attendant care or transport are provided as needed to ensure access.

This program is a two year pilot service in Melbourne’s South East region. There is a strong focus on data collection and evaluation with a view to modifying and expanding the pilot across Victoria in the future.

The project partners at the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria), South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault and Springvale Monash Legal Service.

The project has been made possible through contributions from the William Buckland Foundation, the Reichstein Foundation, Portland House Foundation, Victorian Women’s Trust, Australian Communities Foundation, the Victorian Government and other private donors.


Increased reporting, prosecution and protection

The key long term outcomes of Making Rights Reality will be:

  • increased reporting to police by victims of sexual assault with a cognitive impairment;
  • increased prosecution of these crimes; and
  • increased protection against sexual assault for people with a cognitive impairment through increased prosecution and consequently increased deterrence.


More information

For information on accessing the service, see our brochure here.

For more information about the need for the service and the model, please read our project report here.

For any other queries, contact Chris Atmore at the Federation.


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