- by Bree Booth
- The Guardian
- Issue #1974
Content Warning: mentions of sexual assault, sexual violence, violence against women.
In February 2020, changes to the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act made it an offence in Victoria to publicly identify the victim of a sexual offence. These “gag laws” had the (perhaps unintended) consequence of silencing survivors and families. Under the law, they would have to seek permission from a court to have their names or photographs published.
Since then, some progress has been made. Late last year, reforms were introduced to remove the “gag” for survivors. On Tuesday, the 3rd of August, the Victorian parliament began debating legislation that will allow families of victims who have died to do the same.
In Tasmania, survivors are able to self-identify following reforms to that state’s Evidence Act in April 2020. In July 2020, the NT also reformed its laws to allow survivors to self-identify as long as they are over the age of eighteen and give consent in writing. In Victoria, survivors can also “tailor” their consent by controlling which details are available and to whom.
But there is still some way to go. In all three jurisdictions – Tasmania, the NT and Victoria – survivors are still unable to speak out if court proceedings are ongoing or if the offender is appealing the conviction. This can take years. In addition, given that the laws create an exception for self-identification, families of victims who are deceased are still unable to speak out at all. It is this injustice that the proposed Victorian amendments seek to remedy.
The #LetUsSpeak campaign keeps track of the current laws and ongoing reforms via their website (letusspeak.com.au). They report that the gag laws stifle agency, exacerbate trauma, and contribute to a sense of powerlessness. The effects go beyond the individual to “disempower […] survivors in the community more broadly, by erasing from view public survivor role models.”
We have seen time and again through the #MeToo campaign and high profile cases like the Porter, Pell and Epstein cases that one person speaking out about what has happened to them can empower many others to speak up as well. In cases where the law is unable or unwilling to intervene, a public statement is sometimes the only chance survivors and families have to speak out.
In the midst of a national conversation about the prevalence of sexual violence, survivors and their families telling their stories is crucial to raising awareness and forcing systemic change. We’ve all heard the statistic that one in three women have experienced violence of some form. Allowing survivors and families to speak out puts a human face on this crisis. Put simply, we cannot address a problem that we as a society are (wilfully) unaware of.
The gag laws are a glaring example of how our legal system systematically disadvantages women. The proposed reforms in Victoria are not a magic fix in this sense. This year, the Commonwealth has gone ahead in abolishing the Family Court and Victorian bail laws continue to punish women by keeping them incarcerated for their own “protection” (see Guardian #1951 “Safety Must Come First: Don’t Abolish the Family Court!” and Guardian #1973 “Reform Draconian Victorian Bail Laws!”). So, while the gag law reforms are welcomed, the struggle continues.