I begin the formal stage 3 debate by thanking the members and clerks of the Justice Committee, the Finance Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their careful consideration of the bill.
I also thank the external stakeholders who took the time to engage in the bill and scrutiny processes and share their knowledge of and views on the various issues with which the bill deals.
It is fitting that the final piece of legislation to be dealt with in the chamber in this parliamentary session relates to abusive behaviour and sexual harm. There are few more important issues for the Parliament to deal with than taking the necessary, important and far-reaching steps to improve how our justice system can respond to such distasteful behaviour as domestic abuse and sexual offending.
The bill contains provisions in six areas. The provisions that introduce statutory jury directions have probably been most debated, and it is worth spending some time explaining why we consider that they are so important.
We know that some members of the public who make up juries that decide sexual offence cases hold preconceived and at times ill-founded beliefs about how sexual offences are committed. Those unenlightened views concern the way in which someone who is sexually assaulted or raped will be likely to react when the offence is being committed and afterwards. Some people assume quite wrongly that anyone who commits a sexual offence will always have to use physical force to overcome their victim, and some people think that a victim will always try to physically resist their attacker. Some people think that a victim will always make an immediate report to the police after an offence has been committed against them.
No one seriously doubts that some people in our society hold these views. People do not necessarily hold those views as a result of malice or ill will towards victims of sexual assault; they may be held simply because of a lack of understanding of what the research has told us about the reactions of victims to sexual assaults both during the assaults and in the aftermath.
We know from that extensive research that the reality of what can be expected from a victim of a sexual offence is quite different from those unenlightened views. We know that there is no standard type of reaction and that people react in many different and normal ways. Therefore, jurors who start with preconceptions about how sexual offences are committed and how a victim may react may assume, without considering the specific evidence, that a delay in reporting or the absence of the use of physical force by the attacker or physical resistance by the victim is an indication that an allegation is false.
The intent behind the statutory jury directions is to ensure that the focus of the jury is on the evidence that is laid before it and that any misconceptions that jurors hold about how people react to sexual crime should play no part in how evidence in a case is considered.