07 Nov 2011

Joint pro bono effort recognised at Law and Justice Foundation Awards

Sydney, 07 November 2011: The Sexual Assault Communications Privilege (SACP) project which has brought about important legal reform and which resulted in the establishment of a permanent, state-wide service dedicated to advising and representing victims to assert SACP, was awarded the Pro Bono Partnership Award at the Law and Justice Foundation's 2011 Justice Awards.

The SACP project is a collaboration between law firms Clayton Utz, Blake Dawson and Freehills, community legal centre Women's Legal Services NSW (WLS), the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the NSW Bar Association.

The Award was presented at Parliament House on 24 October 2011, and recognised an "innovative and outstanding pro bono legal assistance relationship that has resulted in improved access to justice for disadvantaged people in the community."

SACP prevents defendants in criminal trials from being able to trawl through a victim's confidential counselling records. The policy behind SACP is to protect the confidentiality of sexual assault counselling, so as to encourage sexual assault victims to seek and stay in counselling, and to make victims feel more confident about being able to report sexual assaults. In 2009, the partners in the SACP project indentified that the privilege was under-utilised because legal aid was not available to victims to assert their rights and many could not otherwise afford to do so.

The SACP project partners developed a pilot program which allowed victims of sexual assault to be referred for free legal representation and assert their SACP in sexual assault criminal prosecutions before the Sydney Central Local and District Courts. SACP was upheld by the Courts in 91 per cent of the matters conducted during the pilot program.

The experiences of the SACP project informed the amendments to the Criminal Procedure Act which were passed by the NSW Parliament in December 2010. These reforms ensure that a victim is made aware of her or his right to oppose the production of their counselling records in Court, and that the Court recognises SACP as an essential element in the criminal trial process.

Clayton Utz special counsel Larissa Cook said the SACP project team was thrilled to have been a part of a collaborative pro bono initiative which has resulted in greater legal protections for victims of sexual assault. "Pursuing a sexual assault to trial is a very traumatic experience and many victims felt violated all over again by the prospect of the Accused having access to their confidential counselling communications. These reforms prevent such access unless the Court deems it absolutely necessary, which is an extremely positive outcome."

A pro bono model was not a long-term solution to providing a comprehensive and sustainable service to the hundreds of victims of sexual assault before NSW Courts each year. The Project partners welcomed the announcement of $4.4million of funding over 4 years for a specialist victims' advocacy service, which will ensure that victims can receive advice and representation in asserting SACP.

David Hillard, Pro Bono Partner at Clayton Utz, said on behalf of the SACP Project partners: "These reforms have been secured through the perfect example of a pro bono project - an identified legal access problem has been tackled collaboratively, reformed through legislation, and with the State now picking up responsibility for future representation of victims. Our organisations started this project to highlight why SACP was not working properly, to get those problems fixed, and to ensure that government-funded services were available for victims to assert their rights. It is so pleasing to see collaboration between private lawyers working pro bono, the community legal sector and the DPP, bring real change to this issue."

Clayton Utz was also nominated at this year's Justice Awards along with Hawkesbury Nepean Community Legal Centre, for the partnership between the organisations to improve outreach legal services in the Hawkesbury region.

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