VICTIMS of sexual assault will be given free legal representation to fight attempts by their attackers to gain access to intimate counselling and medical records.
Some victims have refused to push ahead with their complaint after learning that courts planned to make their personal records available to the defence team.
One victim who did give evidence - Miss C, a teenager gang-raped by the Skaf brothers and their associates in August 2000 - refused to have any counselling or see any doctors for years after details of her discussion with a hospital counsellor were revealed to her attackers' lawyers.
If confidential information falls into the hands of alleged perpetrators and outsiders, it only served to further intimidate and humiliate the victims, the manager of the Rape Crisis Centre, Karen Willis, said.
For example, it was a normal human reaction to trauma to replay events in one's mind and ask if something more could have been done to avoid it.
But in court this could then be twisted to portray the victim as accepting some blame for the events, Ms Willis said.
At present, it is up to the owner of records - doctors, psychologists, schools and government departments such as DOCS and Centrelink - and/or the victims to argue in court against an application for access to the records.
A six-month pilot project, developed by the law firms Blake Dawson, Clayton Utz and Freehills with the Bar Association and the Director of Public Prosecutions, will seek to ensure privileged information is withheld and only documents relevant to the case are released.
But the availability of pro bono lawyers was just a "stop-gap measure" until the law could be improved, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, said. He has already had discussions with the Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, on the issue.
At present, when defence barristers subpoena records, victims have to be notified. But it rarely happens, the national pro bono partner with Blake Dawson, Anne Cregan, said.
If they are notified, they often do not understand the significance, she said. If they do understand, they frequently cannot afford legal help to fight it.
The DPP has 1070 active sexual assault cases, about two-thirds of them relating to child victims, Mr Cowdery said. In many cases, subpoenas of records became a sensitive issue, and victims often found out about it only on the first day of the trial, an already emotional time.
"[The project] removes one more obstacle that victims of sexual assault have to face when their matters to got court," he said. "Therefore, we hope it will send a message to people that those sort of offences should be reported and people should be willing to assist the arrest and see the offender punished."
Whilesome material will continue to be made available to the defence, legal representation should ensure this does not include privileged material.
Six cases, including child victims and victims with an intellectual disability, have already been referred to pro bono lawyers. "It is the aim to use the experience to support requests for further legislation," Mr Cowdery said.