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Helping victims ‘hit back where it hurts’

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New bill proposes enabling Legal Aid SA to provide legal representation to victims of violent crimes wishing to launch civil lawsuits against their violators

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RAPE victims who cannot afford lawyers’ fees could in the near future be able to sue their violators using State coffers.

A new bill that the Department of Social Development introduced in the National Assembly last week proposes enabling Legal Aid SA to provide legal representation to victims of violent crimes wishing to launch lawsuits against their violators.

The Victim Support Services Bill aims to be a game-changer in how victims of crime are treated by the State.

South Africa’s justice system was centred around the perpetrator and left the victim to their own devices to such an extent that at times they are not even aware that their violators are out on bail, stated the bill.

“The purpose of the bill is therefore to bring the victim to the centre of the justice system to ensure that the rights applicable to a perpetrator are also extended to a victim to the extent that is applicable,” it said.

Clause 19 of the bill set out to ensure that Legal Aid SA was no longer just perpetrator-centred but “may provide legal representation to a victim in civil proceedings where the requirements for legal representation at State expense are met”.

“This clause provides that Legal Aid SA is expected to provide legal aid to victims so that they can litigate against perpetrators.

“This is in the context that an accused has a right to legal representation paid for by the State in an event where an accused cannot pay by himself or herself.”

Attorney Tracey Lomax-Nixon made a call last September to victims of crime to sue their perpetrators.

Reacting to the murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, she urged victims and lawyers to “flood the courts with damages claims” and hit the violators where it hurts.

On Sunday, Lomax-Nixon told Independent Media that the advantages of going the civil route included zero chances of victims being retraumatised by having to testify in court.

She said since her call last year, scores of women have approached her to launch lawsuits against their rapists and other abusers.

“I’m really pleased that Legal Aid is going to assist. There are so many women who need this assistance. We’re just flooded and can’t help everyone,” Lomax-Nixon said.

Themba Masango, secretary general of the #NotInMyName movement against gender-based violence and human rights violations, welcomed the proposal.

“It’s a good call so that victims can also have representation. It makes the playing field even more equal because currently it seems the State is prioritising the perpetrators,” Masango said.

Clause 12 of the bill proposed improved treatment of victims by police, which entailed taking statements in victim-friendly, private rooms at police stations.

“It also provides for a victim to be made aware when bail is granted so as to avoid a victim meeting his or her perpetrator surprisingly on the street and having his or her life jeopardised again,” said the bill.