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Wednesday, 28 June 2000
Page: 18525

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (7:30 PM) —The Australian Law Reform Commission and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released a report in 1997 called Seen and heard: priority for children in the legal process. While a significant amount of the report's focus is on the juvenile justice system, it also deals with children as consumers in the justice system, the issue of abuse and particular responsibilities relating to children in care. It also advocates setting up an office of the child to coordinate the Commonwealth's approach to matters affecting the child. The report was tabled in this House in November 1997, and the government is yet to respond to it—three years later, no response and none imminent.

The victims and survivors of child abuse suffer a great deal, and over a lifetime. This is manifested in many ways. A great abuse has been perpetrated and the pain is horrible. Unfortunately, secondary suffering can occur because of the processes of disclosure. Finding and achieving justice for the victims and survivors of child abuse is often as painful and difficult as the primary suffering. Society acknowledges the rights of children and abhors any pain or suffering visited upon them, but try getting justice and support within the judicial system itself!

The legal processes appear to have failed young people. Admittedly, there have been improvements to the laws that govern children and child abuse, but these still lack a national uniformity. They tend to penalise retrospectivity, and definitions of a legally recognised and actionable harm resulting from the infliction of trauma are so specific, such as to result in a diagnosable medical condition or illness, that they make the process too difficult in the first place.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in Australia in 1991, specifically sets out in Article 19 the Commonwealth's responsibility in relation to the protection of children from all forms of abuse and to follow up instances of maltreatment. Children and young people are frequently denied access to and appropriate participation in the legal processes that affect them. To address this, changes are urgently needed across all levels of government and across all jurisdictions. The Commonwealth must take on a leadership and coordination role in what is after all a national problem with national social and economic costs.

The recommendations of the 1997 national inquiry into children and the legal process are designed to give full effect to the right of children to be seen, heard and protected in the legal process, and with the full might of the law. Our children are our future. Abused children have an abused future. Australia's legal processes have consistently failed to recognise this fact by often ignoring, marginalising and mistreating children who turn to them for assistance. The 1997 report makes 286 recommendations to address disparities in the status of children before the law. Many of these recommendations are urgent and compelling. They affect children who are being abused or are exhibiting behaviours indicative of the pain which is often the result of being abused. They are breaking out rather than breaking free.

Mr Antrum of the New South Wales Law Society has written and campaigned extensively on the issue of child abuse and the legal rights of children. He wrote:

Neglect for children can start at home and work its way through all of our institutional and government frameworks because we do not give children a real voice.

Victims of child abuse, their supporters and loved ones do not accept the traditional view of children—that they should remember their place, and that they should not make any sort of contribution until they are earning a wage and casting a vote. In short, they do not accept that children should be seen and not heard.

This positive view was shared by members of the 1997 inquiry. The report was deliberately and specifically titled Seen and heard: priority for children in the legal process. The law, whether it be in criminal, civil or family jurisdictions, makes the task of achieving justice for survivors and victims of child abuse very difficult. Michael Longbottom, of Advocates for Survivors Against Child Abuse, poignantly argues of the legal system, and particularly in relation to my home state of Tasmania:

Sadly the law by its nature can only be reactive not proactive in relation to sexual abuse. There is little evidence that punishment of criminals and awards of civil damages against perpetrators will deter offenders. The law provides some degree of justice for those who have been harmed but does little to prevent harm occurring in the first place.

A survivor once wrote:

I've looked the memories in the face and smelled their breath. They can't hurt me any more.

We must help other survivors be able to reach the same conclusion.