Louise Nicholas: Support Rape Victims

The Louise Nicholas case of rape against a senior serving police officer and two former police officers failed to get a conviction. Outraged by the result, supporters of Louise Nicholas claimed that two of those acquitted were already serving a jail sentence for rape, a fact that was suppressed under NZ’s penal law. Should such information be made known at trials or are their other ways of defending rape victims from failures in the bourgeois justice system?

No More Rape Victims on Trial!

The Louise Nicholas case had disturbed many New Zealanders even before it ended with a not guilty verdict. The team of lawyers representing the three senior police officers accused of rape had effectively put Nicholas in the dock by making a series of attacks on her honesty and integrity. The jury's verdict was the final insult, because it seemed to brand Nicholas as a liar and legitimise the behaviour of the defence team.

To those who knew some of the information about two of the accused which had been kept out the case, the jury's verdict was even more frustrating. Within hours of the end of the trial the suppressed information had appeared on the internet and on leaflets distributed by protesters. Anyone who has been privy to this information will find it very difficult to believe that Louise Nicholas got a fair deal in court.

In the aftermath of the trial many people are wondering what steps can be taken to prevent a repeat of the injustice that Louise Nicholas has suffered. Some feminists have suggested that the law should be changed so that relevant previous criminal convictions of the accused can be considered by a judge and jury rather than suppressed. It is hard to see, though, how such a measure can be squared with a commitment to a fair trial and to the reform of sexual offenders. It is worth noting that the call for the consideration of previous criminal convictions is being echoed by some organisations on the far right of New Zealand politics, including the Act Party.

Other observers pin their hopes on the reform of the police to eliminate the sort of abuses that Louise Nicholas suffered. Some on the left welcomed the appointment of Annette King as Minister of Police, hoping that the presence of a female at the top would help to get rid of some of the sexism of the force. Others call for the recruitment of more female officers. Such suggestions are naive, because they rest on the belief that sexism exists in the force because of the presence of a few 'bad apples', or at worst a macho 'cowboy culture'.

A similar analysis of police racism has seen successive governments recruiting thousands of Polynesians to the force, and organising workshops on 'cultural sensitivity'. Yet the police force remains a profoundly racist institution which is disliked and distrusted by many Polynesians. The racism of the police has come to be symbolised by the slaying of Stephen Wallace in Waitara in 2000, yet the policeman who shot Wallace repeatedly in the back was Maori. The truth is that, whatever the views of their individual members, the police are institutionally racist and institutionally sexist. The police defend capitalism, which is a system which creates the oppression of women and ethnic minorities in a thousand ways every day. Efforts to reform the force by injecting a 'feminist' culture into it will fail. The police can only be transformed when society itself is radically transformed.

But society is not going to be transformed overnight, and many people are looking to take action now to help prevent a repeat of the injustice Louise Nicholas has suffered. If tinkering with the legal system and trying to reform the police are not options, what can they do? One thing that we can all do is work to strengthen the independent organisations that assist victims of sexual violence. In New Zealand, these organisations help thousands of women every year, yet they are chronically under funded and struggle to survive. 

 Sexual Abuse HELP

In Auckland, the Sexual Abuse HELP organisation does a heroic job on a very tight budget. HELP operates a twenty-four hour hotline for victims of sexual violence, provides doctors for these women, provides advisers to coach them through the stressful process of confronting the police, laying a complaint and going to court, and also provides long-term counselling to help victims transcend their suffering.

Anyone who followed the Louise Nicholas case can see how the services which HELP provides could have benefited Louise in the aftermath of the assaults she suffered. If Louise had been able to make a complaint to the police promptly and undergo a prompt examination by a sympathetic doctor, then it would have been much harder for her attackers to smear her by contesting the truthfulness of her memories, and by alleging she enjoyed the sex she had with them. Medical evidence would have shown that the sex was forcible, violent, and painful.

But without an organisation like HELP to turn to, it is not surprising that the eighteen year-old Louise Nicholas felt unable to report the abuse she suffered to the police or a doctor. The huge numbers of women who turn to organisations like HELP today are proof that many sexual violence victims still find police stations and doctor’s examining rooms intimidating places. In Auckland, HELP last year received 8,000 contacts through its hotline, and guided hundreds of women through the courts and into counselling programmes.

Yet HELP and similar organisations still struggle for funding, and often exist on the edge of insolvency. Their inability to service the whole country and their inadequate advertising budgets mean that many sexual violence victims still do not know that organisations exist to help them. These women suffer the isolation of the eighteen year-old Louise Nicholas, and frequently succumb to depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. Government under funding of HELP and similar organisations is directly responsible, then, for unreported rapes and the unnecessary suffering of many women.

While the government lavishes money on the police, new prisons, and troops to fight George Bush’s war in Afghanistan, HELP is forced to appeal to private donors, because its four main public funders – Children Youth and Family, ACC, the Ministry of Development and the Auckland Health Board – invariably fail to provide it enough to operate on. Other organisations that assist victims of sexual violence complain of similar insecurities.

Two years ago HELP initiated a protest campaign to draw attention to the fact that it was on the edge of bankruptcy. After doctors and other caregivers told a large public meeting they were prepared to go on strike, the government stepped in with a one-off injection of cash. But such last minute payments are not enough: HELP and similar organisations should be assured adequate funding from a single government source, so that they can do their jobs free from constant worries about insolvency.

Everyone who is outraged by the injustice that has been done to Louise Nicholas should demand that the government respond to this injustice by massively increasingly funding for organisations that assist and represent the victims of sexual violence. Trade unions have an especially important role to play. Many of employees of HELP and similar organisations are members of trade unions, and the Service and Food Workers Union helped organise the 2004 public meeting to defend HELP. After the murder of Stephen Wallace in 2000 the National Distribution Union took up the Wallace family’s campaign for a public inquiry into the actions of the police and the broader question of police racism. Today, trade unionists should support the protests against the sexism and injustice Louise Nicholas has suffered, and also demand better funding for those who help victims of sexual violence.

From Class Struggle 66 April/May 2006

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