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Bringing sexual offence law back into the classroom: an argument for a trauma-informed curriculum to better equip law graduates for practice

Emma Henderson, Kirsty Duncanson, La Trobe University


International research implicates barristers in the circulation of rape myths in rape trials, contributing to persistently low conviction rates despite four decades of law reform. A significant number of the practicing Victorian barristers we interviewed in 2020-2021 did not properly understand the concept of ‘rape myths’ and failed to comprehend their own reliance on and reproduction of rape myths when prosecuting or defending rape complaints. To investigate why barristers rely on rape myths, we decided to look at legal education and the extent to which it provides students with knowledge about sexual offences and sexual violence. In 2022 we invited the Coordinators of the core criminal law subjects at every accredited Australian law schools to participate in a survey regarding the teaching of sexual offence material. The results of our survey indicated that over the past twenty years, growing time constraints combined with greater awareness of, and concern for, student mental health, and apprehension about triggering vicarious or past trauma, have led to much of the sexual offences curriculum moving out of the classroom and into asynchronous study. Sexual offence scenarios have also been removed from assessment tasks. In this paper we argue that there is a strong possibility that many Australian law graduates have not sufficiently engaged with the sexual offence curriculum, or established knowledge about rape myths while at law school. We argue that this lack of critical and contextual learning contributes to barrister reliance on rape myths at trial. Rather than vacating the space to avoid student and staff trauma, we propose instead a trauma-informed curriculum to enable the delivery of sexual offence content in the classroom, as well as providing pathways to discuss established knowledge about sexual violence.