New sexual offences bill can be conduit for justice overhaul

The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) has lauded the recent passage of the Sexual Offences Bill, saying the legislation, if embraced positively, provides a tool for modernisation and renovation of the administration of justice, well beyond the purview of sexual offences.

The consultative process as initiated by Human Services Minister Priya Manickchand was hailed by GHRA, which also praised the minister for piloting the legislation through Parlia-ment.

The GHRA underscored the importance of the bar and bench working together for benefits anticipated from the bill to materalise on various fronts. It said they must adopt a positive and vigorous approach, rather than tactics that stifle the new legislation. “This is a challenge we now face,” the association said in a statement released yesterday, noting also that the wide-spread positive res-ponse to the legislation reflects a perceived boost for several causes including a higher conviction rate; practitioners frustrated with out-moded practices and average citizens sickened by the brazen assaults on women and girls.

Speaking directly on the legislation, the GHRA cited the change in procedure relating to circumstances in which sexual activity occurred and the abolition of Preliminary Inquiries (PIs) as two of the most fundamental changes which the new legislation contains.

Rape trials, it said, traditionally focus on whether the victim consented, thereby ensuring a harrowing and humiliating experience calculated to drive the victim into abandoning her complaint and prevent the matter going to trial. “This will no longer be the case in Guyana,” the GRHA said, noting that trials will first address a long and specific list of circumstances that demonstrate whether violence or coercion were involved and if any of them are found to be present the question of consent does not arise.

The GHRA called the abolishing of PIs another triumph for modernization, saying the procedure has taken on the feature of a trial in itself for decades now, “for which high fees are paid to defence lawyers mainly to harass the victim out of court.” The body said the procedure will be replaced by a paper-based process, in the future, in which a magistrate will evaluate written statements in order to determine whether a trial should take place.

Further, the GHRA noted the listing of new crimes in the legislation. It stated that this provides for a series of more specific forms of sexual abuse including internet grooming, offences by persons in positions of trust, against mentally impaired persons and by causing a child to watch a sexual act. It said too that the effect of unpacking these different forms of assault has the same effect of differentiating stealing money into ‘robbery’, ‘armed robbery’, ‘pick-pocketing’ and fraud among other offences. According to the association, such distinctions encourage a higher rate of conviction.

The GHRA also made mention of the provisions in the legislation which offer guidance to the various actors in the judicial process as to how they should approach sexual offences. It referred to guidance on conducting investigations into sexual offences and procedures for gathering evidence as set out for the benefit primarily of the police. Additionally, how the trial must be conducted, what witnesses may and may not be asked, legal procedures for the protection of young witnesses and anony-mity of victims also detailed.

The Act also provides for training of ancillary staff such as probation and welfare personnel, as well as developing procedures and protocols to be followed by guidelines for judges and magistrates. “…The positive attitude required to promote the new law should be accompanied by a similar review of social norms that encourage inappropriate sexual activity,” the GHRA said, adding that one area for consideration would be less tolerance for raunchy advertising of entertainment and sales – boat cruises, sporting and student events and so on. It said too that another could be to encourage teenagers to socialise more in groups rather than pairs to reduce incidents of unwanted sexual activity.

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