This briefing happens as we commemorate the noble actions of our country’s heroines, whose courage led to the birth of a democratic society. In 1956, ordinary women from varying racial and cultural backgrounds united in their diversity to confront the legislated injustice of the separatist regime. Frustrated by the restrictive pass laws, they marched against the former government to demand the restoration of human dignity. They wanted a country in which women and children live and walk freely without fear of violation and intimidation.
Their efforts and visionary steps have been engraved in our Constitution, which advocates for the preservation and protection of human dignity, freedom of movement and non-discrimination. We are encouraged by their heroic and historic confrontation of the brutal political and socio economic ills of the time. In keeping with their vision, our government has resolved to deal decisively with gender based violence.
In the 20 year of our democracy, several measures were implemented to protect and promote rights of all who live in South Africa, in particular women and children. Progressive legislative frameworks such as the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998; the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007; Equality Act are some of the protective layers that have been set up to deal with all forms of abuse, violence and discrimination. Just recently, the President signed into law, the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Person Act, adding yet another milestone in the fight against human rights abuse, which affects mainly the vulnerable of our society.
Our chapter nine institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission and Gender Commission continue to deepen the country’s democracy and advocate for the promotion of equality and human dignity.
Since 1994, South Africa has signed and ratified a number of international instruments that provide the international trend in the management of sexual offences by courts such as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and The Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action.
The Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women requires state parties to pass laws against sexual violence that are accompanied by appropriate support services for victims. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines clearly the general standard which courts should follow when dealing with cases involving child victims. It provides that “in all official actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, or administrative authorities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action requires signatory states such as ours to provide women who are subjected to violence with access to the mechanisms of justice, as well as just and effective remedies for the harm they have suffered. It further requires the creation and strengthening of institutional mechanisms that provide a safe and confidential environment to victims of gender-based violence, free from the fear of penalties or retaliation.
Together with all government departments in the JCPS cluster, we have made a commitment through the signing of the delivery agreement to deal resolutely with gender-based violence. Several steps are being implemented to build a victim-centred criminal justice system to deal with possible secondary victimisation. The police have established victim’s friendly rooms in all the police stations to provide a conducive environment for victims of sexual violence to report the matter without fear of victimisation.
The Thuthuzela Care Centre model, which integrates all functionaries in the Criminal Justice System, continues to provide the necessary support to ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to book and made to face the might of the law. New technological advancement is being implemented to strengthen coordination and effective monitoring of case movement in the system.
The report which we are releasing today is one of the initiatives, which seeks to bring improvements in the manner that the courts deal with cases of sexual offences. The report is an outcome of an intensive research undertaken by the Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offences Matters (MATTSO) which I commissioned to investigate the viability of re-establishing sexual offences courts in June 2012.
The task team brought together key functionaries involved in the administration of cases of sexual crimes and key institutions supporting the fight against gender- based violence. These included the Chief Directorate: Promotion of Rights Vulnerable Group; the judiciary (represented by the Regional Court Presidents Forum); National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), represented by Sexual Offences and Community Affairs (SOCA) Unit); Legal Aid of South Africa; and the Regional Court Presidents Forum. It also has representatives of Justice Sector Strengthening Programme (JSSP), and Foundation for Human Rights (FHR).
The concept of Sexual Offences Courts, which was the subject of the investigation, was first introduced in South Africa at the Wynberg Regional Court, Cape Town in 1993. This pilot project was aimed at responding to and preventing the increasing figures of rape cases reported in the area at the time. The pilot proved to be a huge success as it maintained the conviction rate of up to 80% over a period of a year. This became a strong motivation for the NPA to establish further Sexual Offences Courts around the country. Following the success of the Wynberg project, in 1999 the NPA first established sexual offence courts in Mdantsane, Soweto, Bloemfontein, Durban, Parow, and Grahamstown. By the end of 2005, there were 74 Sexual Offences Courts countrywide. Two of the main achievements of the Sexual Offences Courts were an increase in conviction rates and a decrease in turnaround time from the date of report to the police up to the finalisation of the case.
Even though these courts recorded considerable success, there were a number of challenges that led to their demise. Some of the challenges included the lack of a specific legal framework to establish these courts, a dedicated budget, poor visibility of these courts in remote areas, restricted space capacity in courts, lack of training of court personnel and monitoring and evaluation mechanism developed specifically for the management of these courts. However, nine (9) of these sexual offences courts continued to operate in various areas of the country which included Port Elizabeth, Durban, Johannesburg, Kimberly, Welkom, Bloemfontein, Wynberg, Parow, and Moretele. Also, a number of courts were dedicated to prioritise sexual offences related matter by the Regional Court Presidents. The department also put in more resources into these courts so as to reduce secondary victimisation.
The Task Team has concluded with their findings and compiled a detailed report which clearly determines that our current court system requires special courts to ensure an adequate response to the special needs of the sexual offence victims.
Findings and recommendations
After numerous deliberations and analysis of the available research indicated above and in the report, the task team came to the conclusion that there are sufficient grounds and a compelling need for the re-establishment of the Sexual Offences Courts. In their assessment these courts are in line with the ethos of the objects of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007, which seek to afford complainants of sexual offences the maximum and least traumatising protection.
The re-establishment of the Sexual Offences Courts will reinforce the establishment of a victim-centred court system that is prompt, responsive and effective. From the research studies, these courts were found to be successful in the establishment of a victim-centred criminal justice system, reduction of secondary victimisation, improvement of skills of court personnel, reduction of the cycle time in the finalisation of sexual offences cases, and have generally contributed to the efficient prosecution and adjudication of these cases.
The task team also found that most of the specifications of the Blueprint for Sexual Offences Courts are still recognised as an international best practice model, and therefore ought to be retained.
Furthermore, the Resource Audit showed that out of 567 courts sitting as regional courts (including circuit courts), 49 courts are resourced closest to the Sexual Offences Model in that they have at least two waiting rooms available. One hundred six (106) courts are also resourced close to the Model in that they have a waiting room specifically dedicated to child witnesses but do not necessarily have a second waiting room. The audit further revealed that many of these courts are capacitated with the required human resources, e.g. the regional magistrate, prosecutor, intermediary, interpreter, and court operations clerk.
The task team made several impressive recommendations which will see the successful implementation of the Sexual Offences Courts.
Among them is the: upgrade of existing Dedicated Sexual Offences Courts into Sexual Offences Courts,
an investigation to determine the feasibility of merging the various specialised/ dedicated victim support services and one-stop centres, like the Thuthuzela Care Centres, the Khuseleka One Stop Centres and SAPS Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units (FCS) centres into a model one-stop centre that will function to optimize the performance of the Sexual Offences Courts.
A feeding scheme for child witnesses must be investigated for possible introduction in these courts and be properly costed.
An integrated monitoring and evaluation framework must be developed to ensure the effective and efficient intersectoral management of the Sexual Offences Courts.
A South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) accredited training programme to capacitate all functionaries involved in the administration of sexual offences courts.
The Task Team also developed a court model which introduces the necessary resources for the adjudication of sexual offences cases, especially those involving children and persons with mental disabilities.
In terms of this model, courts offering these services must have the following features:
Proper screening process to identify cases that fall within the sexual offences category Case flow management that is custom-made for sexual offences; special room from which the victim will testify, which must have minimal furniture and decoration
Private waiting room for adult witnesses
Private waiting room for child witnesses
Victim support services;
Designated court clerk in these courts group of specialist presiding officers, who have experience in criminal matters and who have undergone specified training on child development, working with mental disabilities and the dynamics of sexual offences;
Court preparation programme for witnesses to prepare them for court and to provide debriefing after they have testified;
Debriefing programme for court personnel; etc.
The Task Team was also specific in its recommendation of equipment that is necessary for the efficient functioning of the Sexual Offences courtroom.
A two-way closed circuit television system to enable the child to identify the accused from the testifying room, when required to do so;
A separate monitor for the presiding officer to ensure increased visibility of the image and control of the system;
A large screen monitor for the other members of the court, as prescribed by the national guidelines of the CCTV and other related court equipment;
A monitor in the testifying room for purposes of allowing the victim to identify the accused, when required to do so
The personnel requirements for each Sexual Offences Court include:
Designated court clerk
Designated social worker
Legal aid practitioner
Court preparation/victim support officer
We are grateful to the task team for their sterling assessment of the viability of reintroducing sexual offences courts. Their recommendations will clearly improve the manner in which the court system deals with sexual offence cases and reduce secondary victimisation.
Work in the implementation of these recommendations has already commenced. The department has already identified 57 Regional courts for upgrading and equipment with modern technology to operate as Sexual Offences Courts. This work has commenced in 2013/14 financial year. We believe that these sexual offences courts will help address the growing challenge of sexual offences in the country, particularly against vulnerable groups.
We hope that all of us in our communities will work with government to deal with sexual violence and cement a human rights based society, an ideal for which the class of 1956 pursued relentlessly.