A statute of limitations is the maximum amount of time after a crime has been committed that legal proceedings may proceed. It exists in the common law system and is passed by a legislative body in the system. While there does not exist a particular statute of limitations in Australia for criminal offenses, there is a myriad of rules that impede legal proceedings from being initiated for various supposedly less critical crimes. These less critical crimes are known as ‘summary offenses’ and in states like New South Wales and Australia, the local police are not permitted to convict criminals after the alleged incident has happened over half a year ago.
This is unique to summary offenses and does not apply to ‘indictable offenses’ like sexual assault offenses, which are defined to be more critical crimes. Under usual circumstances, there is no limitation period to report an indictable offense, so the plaintiff is allowed to press charges regardless of how long ago the incident was.
Despite so, some prosecutors might still consider the time frame of the event as an offense committed many years or decades ago, and hence the accused could be let off without charges. The reasons behind this are that crucial evidence and important witnesses are needed to provide substantial proof, but they are hard to gather after many years. Another point is that a defendant’s memory may have faded or is unclear, making it a challenge to defend in court; some key memories include an alibi or particular events.
Pertaining to the difficulties in pressing charges for indictable offenses after a prolonged period of time, sexual assault cases are a common case in point. It is a sensitive issue, especially when it comes to child sexual assault cases and they are usually tried for a long time after the incident has occurred. This is usually because of the victim’s personal reasons like being afraid to press charges, making their story known to the public and thinking that nobody will trust that they are telling the truth.
Another factor that makes sexual assault cases tricky is the lack of witnesses. Evidence presented in court is therefore limited and reliant on the plaintiff’s and defendant’s own accounts. Whether charges are pressed then depends on who presents a more convincing case when the case is tried. Furthermore, such incidents are relatively hard to discern and prosecute due to the differing viewpoints and accounts of the victim and the defendant as well as the shortage of concrete evidence like CCTV footage and eye-witness reports.
Child sexual abuse is a traumatic and unforgettable experience that will stay with a person long after they grow up. During the Royal Commission, a huge number of victims came forward and shared their stories of being abused as children. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of child abuse cases, with many having occurred more than ten years ago.
In the event that a statute of limitations was implemented to sexual assault cases, there would have been far fewer victims who came forward during the ongoing inquiry into the Catholic Church. Moreover, their stories would have remained a secret and they would not be able to get the compensation they deserve.
Constant revision of laws and legal reform have resulted in the abolishment of the conjecture that a failure to report a sexual assault case within a fixed time period connotates a false allegation. While this gives sexual assault victims more time and freedom to report their case when they feel ready and prepared, waiting too long will result in them facing obstacles in getting their case tried in court.
On the flipside, accused sexual offenders who are innocent face a tough time proving their innocence in court. Most of the time, it is because some factors such as the presence of alcohol during the incident can cause them to have a blurry memory or they simply cannot remember details from supposedly unimportant events that happened decades ago. However, the inability to recall specific events may not be entirely detrimental as they provide prosecuting barristers with good material for cross-examination. This is such that the barrister might be able to prove the defendant’s innocence if he or she has the guts to take the witness stand during the trial.
In Australia, limitation periods for criminal offenses differ across states. For example, in the state of Victoria, statutory limitations still pertain to child abuse victims. In the years leading up to the 1990s, there was a time limit of one year for victims to report sexual abuse. If they do not meet the deadline, their case will not be heard in court. Furthermore, some legal documents in the Limitations of Actions Act state that victims may not be allowed to press charges against their abusers. It was only in 2014 that changes were made to this legislation so that abuse cases from decades ago could be reported.
More laws and offenses have also been affixed to further protect children in Australia. For example, a person can be charged for knowing and ignoring suspected child abuse cases. Moreover, people who hold roles of responsibility in an organization can be charged for neglecting to protect a child if they are aware that someone in their organization is dangerous.
Such laws are especially important in persecuting churches and school boards. This is as they are often found guilty of knowing that child sexual assault is being committed on their grounds yet they actively choose to ignore it to save the institution’s reputation and protect its interests. Instead of helping victims come forward or receive compensation, these institutions will simply transfer sexual offenders to another parish.
To conclude, with such legislative changes being made, the Victorian Attorney-General desires that more victims will be able to receive compensation. On the other hand, it is hoped that the perpetrators and organizations involved in these cases are brought to justice and rightly punished; this is especially as they do not have the option of escaping their crimes through the time limit clause anymore.