Sexual violence 'invisible' amid low conviction rates

Increased reporting of sexual violence has not been reflected in conviction rates as victims face further traumatisation navigating what campaigners say is a failing justice system.

Newly released data shows fewer than one in 10 sexual assault allegations reported to police in NSW resulted in a guilty verdict in court, painting a bleak picture for those seeking the legal recourse.

Of the 5869 sexual assault incidents reported to police in 2018, less than 15 per cent resulted in charges being laid.

Less than half of the cases that did go to court were proven, leading to an overall guilty rate of about seven per cent of all reports.

Full Stop Australia's Tara Hunter said the system was failing to bring justice for victim-survivors or hold perpetrators accountable.

"Sexual violence remains an invisible form of abuse," she said.

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research study released on Wednesday highlighted that the vast majority of sexual assaults never progressed beyond a police report.

"By far, the most significant point of attrition is at the police investigation phase," executive director Jackie Fitzgerald told AAP.

Low conviction rates for cases that went to court could subsequently influence the quality of police investigations, she said.

"It's a bit of a cyclic process," Ms Fitzgerald said.

A 2023 study by KPMG and RMIT University's Centre for Innovative Justice, involving interviews with sexual assault complainants and legal practitioners in NSW, found the decision not to proceed to court was overwhelmingly determined by police.

Many complainants expressed concerns around the quality of initial investigations, citing delayed and inadequately recorded statements, failure to document evidence such as photographs of physical injuries, or failure to gather additional material such as CCTV footage or witness interviews.

Two out of five defendants whose cases proceeded to court had all their charges withdrawn by the prosecution, dismissed due to mental health or disposed of on other grounds, the bureau said.

"While the number of reported sexual assaults have nearly doubled over the last decade, the numbers are not translating into higher convictions," Ms Fitzgerald said.

The number of sexual assault incidents reported to NSW police climbed to 9138 in 2022, up from about 6000 four years earlier.

But for the people who were convicted, the penalties were often severe.

Of those convicted of sexual assaults, 77 per cent were sentenced to prison.

Ms Fitzgerald said convictions could often be "a blunt measure of success", but it was possible to make the criminal justice system more sympathetic and less traumatic.

Ms Hunter called for closer collaboration between government agencies and specialist services to support victim-survivors and lift conviction rates.

About 20 per cent of Australian women and six per cent of men aged over 18 have experienced a sexual assault since the age of 15, according to the 2023 Australian Bureau of Statistics personal safety survey.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028