Security Research

Court reactions on Sexual Offences

Project Management: Dr. Birgitt Haller
Implementation: Dr. Birgitt Haller
Justina Kaiser MA
Funded by: Federal Chancellery of Austria, Division for Women and Equality
Completed: March 2018

The sample examined in the quantitative file analysis consisted of 50 court files from 2016 and from two Austrian regions. Most victims were girls and women (58), but there were also six boys/men among them. The study aimed to compare the actual situation and the situation in the 1990s when the only previous evaluation of court reactions regarding sexual offences had been undertaken (published in 1995). Since then, we were able to see some improvements. First this concerns the careful interaction with victims, especially with regard to questioning, and secondly, misogynist stereotypes leading to victim blaming and sometimes incomprehensible acquittals have become less frequent. Moreover, penalties have become stricter since then.

A few important findings will be highlighted here. First of all, the high proportion of non-nationals is unexpected. More than half of the accused have emigrated from non-EU countries, esp. from Turkey and Afghanistan. Evidently, these numbers reflect the immigration of refugees in 2015. Among the victims Austrian citizens are predominant (two third).

When focusing on the relationship between female victims and perpetrators, the largest groups of accused are acquaintances and strangers, with a share of one third each. Partners (9 per cent), men whom the victims had met within 24 hours before the crime was committed (11 per cent) and relatives (7 per cent) are much less represented. Men and boys on the other hand are mostly victimized by relatives (43 per cent) and acquaintances (29 per cent).

Coming back to female victims, many of them filed a complaint immediately after the attack or some time later (40 per cent each), but only in a few cases, third parties initiated prosecution. Even more striking is the fact that about 90 per cent of all victims testified against the perpetrator. This is surprising as public prosecutors and judges often explain the large share of dismissals and acquittals by the lack of support of prosecution by victims.

But there is a negative surprise as well with regard to the small number of victims who were accompanied to court by representatives of NGOs. The right to psychosocial and legal support was introduced in 2006, stipulating that especially victims of sexual offences should be supported. But some of the victims who did not benefit from this right had support by privately financed lawyers.

Two thirds of the cases ended with convictions (33), one third with acquittals (17), and two perpetrators were institutionalized as mentally abnormal offenders. Acquittals were mostly explained by contradictory statements of victim and perpetrator and by witness statements in favor of the accused.

We tried to analyse the effects of characteristics of either the perpetrator or the victim or the crime on the judgement by using statistical methods. Some results were statistically significant. E.g. 88 per cent of the accused who had a criminal record were sentenced. The relationship between victim and perpetrator also plays an important role: when differentiating between "known" and "unknown" perpetrators, in one out of four acquittals the perpetrator was a stranger, as well as in one out of two convictions. This is an effect of the cliché that rapes are committed by strangers in a park at night – and that partners do not commit sexual offences (although prevalence studies clearly contradict these perceptions).

Unsurprisingly, the number of pieces of evidence influences the court´s decision. In case of acquittals, 1.6 pieces of evidence were available on average, in case of convictions 2.6. The existence of both a medical certificate and photographs of injuries lead to a conviction in 100 per cent of the cases.