“Everyone came with their partners and the like. My father opened by confronting my uncle about the abuse – by then a lot of other victims in the family had spoken up – and everyone was horrified,” Paula says.
“My uncle kept saying he was sorry, so sorry. And even though he didn’t direct it just at me . . . it gave me validation.”
Some family members then also took matters to police.
“He wasn’t convicted,” Paula says. “It was decided the charges were too old for him to mount a defence. My uncle pleaded not guilty despite all the people in the room that day hearing him admit what he’d done.
“In the end, a process whereby we sat around a room where we talked about it honestly gave me a bigger sense of justice than 18 months worth of court hearings. It was empowering and it helped protect our family. No-one was keeping secrets.”
That was in the mid-1990s. These days, the kind of meeting Paula’s family initiated is called restorative justice. It involves a face-to-face encounter between the offender and the victim, their families, and professional mediators, who help each side address their feelings and help each party find redress. Where appropriate, this may include offender therapy.
It is also at the centre of most ideas about what an alternative process for dealing with sexual offence cases might look like.
“What we have found,” says Elisabeth McDonald, Victoria University associate law professor and author of the book From Real Rape to Real Justice, “is that not everyone wants the outcome to be long-term imprisonment. Women might not want to go through the trial process, to carry around the details with them for two years so they aren’t accused of remembering incorrectly.
“What they do want is an apology and an acknowledgement and they don’t want it to happen again.”
McDonald’s research was central to a Law Commission draft report that suggested the need for more options for rape victims – not only within the current criminal court process but in some cases completely outside it.
Currently, the rough outline for the process would see victims enter an alternative process either before a complaint to police or at the point of complaint, rather than progressing to a trial. It needs agreement from both victim and accused, with willingness on behalf of the perpetrator to accept intervention.
It would be confidential but not wholly immune from reverting back to a criminal process if further revelations of serious offending arose, and would require specialist outside services such as counselling to run alongside it.
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