Sex abuse law change to aid victims
20-year limit on reporting abuse ‘inconsistent with constitution’
IT’S A law amendment that could change the lives of thousands of sexual abuse victims who, until now, were unable to come forward because of a 20-year time limit on reporting sexual abuse.
Yesterday, the high court in Joburg declared the prescription regarding sexual assault offences in the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) unconstitutional.
This means that the 20-year time limit on reporting sexual abuse from the time it was committed has been deemed to be inconsistent with South Africa’s constitution.
The ruling comes after eight people alleging to have been sexually violated by the late billionaire Sidney Frankel over two decades ago sought an amendment to the CPA to write out the time limits for survivors to lay cases against alleged perpetrators.
In the judgment, Judge Clare Hartford ruled that the prescription periods for sexual offences set out in the CPA were invalid and there should no longer be time limits for prosecuting these serious crimes.
“The law must encourage the prosecution of these nefarious offences, which are a cancer in South African society, and must support victims in coming forward, no matter how late in the day.
“The law should not smother a victim’s ability to bring sexual offenders to book, as it presently does,” the judge said.
The court suspended the declaration of invalidity for 18 months to give Parliament time to amend the relevant legislation.
But first “it has to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court before it can come into effect”, explained Ian Levitt, the attorney representing the so-called “Frankel Eight”.
“It’s a massive victory for us and for all victims of sexual abuse,” he said. “I feel extremely happy with the judgment. I’m confident the Constitutional Court will confirm it. We are no longer faced with a law that protects perpetrators more than victims.”
One of the Frankel Eight, Nicole Levenstein, said this was a major victory for them. “There’s a deep sense of relief, gratitude and humility and just real appreciation in the fact that there has been an awakening in our judicial system,” she said.
Levenstein emphasised that this was also a huge victory for the children of South Africa, because “we now know these perpetrators will be brought to justice”.
She added that this gave courage to other sexual abuse victims.
“It’s saying to them that ‘you can come forward now because there’s a process in place to allow you to take the action you need in order to tell your story and begin a healing process of some kind’.”
Vincentia Dlamini, operations director for Women and Men Against Child Abuse, echoed Levitt’s sentiments.
“It’s a victory for victims who were unable to come forward because of the 20-year limit. It’s empowering for victims who were abused at age 10, and are now age 31 or 32; they will be able to come forward.
And they know that when they come forward, people will believe them and take them seriously,” Dlamini added.
Sheena Swemmer of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University said: “This is a significant step towards ensuring that the criminal justice system is responsive to all victims of sexual offence, no matter when they come forward.”