A Special Court for Sex Crimes? These Political Leaders Say It's Time Israel Had One

Eleanor Hannah Reich
Eleanor H. Reich
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Merav Michaeli
Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, who first proposed legislation to establish special courts for sex crimes in 2015. Credit: לנס הפקות
Eleanor Hannah Reich
Eleanor H. Reich

Linor L. was sexually assaulted by the bus driver at the psychiatric care facility where she was an outpatient. While the attacker was initially convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, a Supreme Court appeal two years later set him free. The acquitting justice cited Linor’s mental instability and past complaints of sexual violence as reasons to doubt her reliability.

Linor shared her painful story at a convention organized in Tel Aviv Port last month by the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. The event kick-started its campaign calling for the establishment of dedicated Israeli courts dealing exclusively with sexual offense cases.

The association’s vision would see the establishment of specialist courts where everyone, from clerk to judge, will be trained to deal with sexual assault cases compassionately and professionally. Such courts are meant to relieve some of the emotional stress of the accusers and encourage them to report attacks without fear of humiliation or degradation during the legal process.

Outside of Israel, the concept isn’t a new one. In 2010, the United Nations published a handbook recommending that legislation should “provide for the creation of specialized courts or special court proceedings guaranteeing timely and efficient handling of cases of violence against women.”

Variations on this idea already exist in countries such as South Africa, New Zealand and India, and in the state of New York. According to a 2017 report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, the South African model succeeded in reducing the trauma for accusers and increased the rate of reporting and convictions.

‘A second rape’

Members of Knesset from across the political divide at an event for creating dedicated courts in Israel for sex crimes. Credit: לנס הפקות

The discourse and legislation around sexual violence has come a long way over the years in a country where a sexual harassment law was only introduced in 1998 and where the average prison sentence for rape in 2000 was about seven years (it increased in subsequent years).

Yet many of the speakers at last month’s event said victims of sexual violence face great difficulties in their interactions with the judicial system. Some even compared the experience to a “second rape.”

The concept of establishing such a court was first promoted in Israel in 2015 through lawmakers Merav Michaeli (Labor) and Michal Rozin (Meretz). Although their bill didn’t pass, three years later, then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked established the Berliner Committee, led by former Tel Aviv District Court Judge Dvora Berliner, to examine how sexual assault victims are treated by the justice system.

The committee’s deliberations were long and thorough. At the Tel Aviv event, Michaeli, now the transportation minister and leader of the Labor party, told the gathering that “Judge Berliner gave us a hard time … she kept asking the ‘devil’s advocate’ questions. We sweated hard.”

The committee’s report was eventually released in December 2019 and found “a considerable gap between the regulation of constitutional rights for victims of crime and their current implementation.”

Accordingly, the committee recommended several steps for improving the treatment of sexual assault victims, both in their interactions with the police and later in the courts. One of those was to implement a pilot test of a dedicated court concentrating solely on sexual assault cases.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin at the event.Credit: לנס הפקות

What would that look like in practice? The committee recommended, among other things, sensitive and professional treatment of the accuser; adjustment of the interrogation location so as to avoid interaction between the accuser and the accused; the establishment of an emotional support system for the court’s staff; and timely management of the cases.

The committee also examined the potential risks of creating a specialized court. Those who raised red flags and concerns were described in the report as a minority voice on the panel.

The report mentioned that Israel’s Public Defender’s Office “expressed grave concerns that forming dedicated departments as proposed might violate the balances meant to provide protections against false conviction and exaggerated sentencing of defendants.”

It was further claimed that the holistic approach of such courts would not take into account the well-being of the accused, hurting their legal right of being innocent until proven guilty.

The report also addressed a concern that dedicated courts and new legal orders will “nibble into many procedural rights conferred on defendants by reducing the scope of study of the evidence, creating additional mechanisms for overseeing cross investigations, granting status of higher importance to alleged victims and accusers to express their position before the court.”

Another area of concern in the report was the “lack of diversity among the judges.” Per the committee’s findings, studies have shown that judges who specialize in a particular field deal with a narrower range of offenses and tend to dole out higher sentences than courts that deal with a wider array of offences.

Judges who are like surgeons

One expert who testified before the committee, law professor Ruthy Lowenstein-Lazar of the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Letzion said she supports dedicated courts and sees the objections raised in the report as a weak argument against them.

A female protester at a demonstration in Tel Aviv against sexual assault, last year. The sign tells women: "You're not alone."Credit: Meged Gozani

“We are not creating an extrajudicial system,” Lowenstein-Lazar said. In her view, having separate courts where judges are holistically trained to understand and rule in sexual assault cases “will merely bring the criminal procedure closer to the world of sexual assault victims.”

She added that a squad of judges trained in a specific matter could be equated to surgeons having a defined specialty. “At the end of the day, you want someone who deals with a certain matter to understand it,” she said.

One high-profile speaker at last month’s event was Deputy Public Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz, a member of the Yesh Atid party and former senior police officer. Segalovitz, who supports the specialized court initiative, told the gathering that “to operatively promote something, we need to step into the shoes of those who oppose it.”

He proposed that those in the justice system who oppose the idea should be presented first of all with a limited plan to create a single court pilot, per the 2019 report. This way, he explained, the idea won’t look like a legal revolution but more like a study case that can be reversed if found to be problematic, or adopted and widened if it succeeds. “It’s possible to convince everyone who’s involved in this matter,” he said.

While the establishment of a full-time, dedicated court remains only an idea at this point, Michaeli told at the event that her party is pushing for the immediate implementation of a similar idea: establishing special units dedicated to treating victims of sexual offenses in the police. “This is going to happen now,” she emphasized, stating that her party won’t allow the Knesset to pass the state budget without it.

A court dedicated to sexual offenses will not eliminate the traumatic element of prosecuting such cases all together. Accusers will still have to undergo invasive questioning to ensure the judge is convinced the defendant deserves to be convicted. However, it has the potential to allow for this painful process to be done in a much more compassionate manner.

Former Rehovot Magistrate’s Court Judge Sharon Keisar’s time heading a Jerusalem-area assistance center for victims of sexual violence has changed her views on the matter in recent years. She testified at the gathering that it is only now that she appreciates how crucial it is for judges to have the knowledge, understanding, patience and emotional bandwidth to engage with these types of cases in depth and in the most professional manner.

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