The Johannesburg High Court declared the prescription regarding sexual assault offences in the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) unconstitutional.
This means that the 20-year limit on reporting sexual abuse from the time it was committed has been deemed inconsistent with South Africa’s constitution.
The ruling comes after eight people alleging to have been sexually violated by the late billionaire Sidney Frankel over two decades ago sought an amendment to the CPA to write out the time limits for survivors to lay cases against alleged perpetrators.
In the judgment, Judge Clare Hartford ruled that the prescription periods for sexual offences set out in the CPA were invalid and that there should no longer be time limits for prosecuting these serious crimes. “The law must encourage the prosecution of these nefarious offences, which are a cancer in South African society, and must support victims in coming forward, no matter how late in the day.
“The law should not smother a victim’s ability to bring sexual offenders to book, as it presently does,” Hartford said.
The court suspended the declaration of invalidity for 18 months to give Parliament time to amend the relevant legislation.
But the high court order would have to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court first before going before Parliament.
The attorney representing the “Frankel Eight”, Ian Levitt, said: “It’s a massive victory for us and for all victims of sexual abuse. I feel extremely happy with the judgment.
“I’m confident that the Constitutional Court will confirm it. We are no longer faced with a law that protects perpetrators more than the victims,” he said.
One of the so-called Frankel Eight, Nicole Levenstein, said she was relieved by the judgment.
“There’s a deep sense of gratitude and humility and just real appreciation in the fact that there’s been an awakening in our judicial system,” Levenstein said.
Vincentia Dlamini, operations director for Women and Men Against Child Abuse, echoed Levitt’s sentiments.
“It’s a victory for victims who were unable to come forward because of the 20-year limit.
“It’s empowering for victims who were abused at age 10 and now at age 31 or 32, they will be able to come forward – they know that when they come forward, people will believe them and take them seriously,” Dlamini added.
Shaheda Omar, clinical director of the Teddy Bear Foundation, said the judgment acknowledged the deep trauma that sexual violence of any kind may have on victims.
“The court has now demonstrated its understanding that the process of disclosure in itself is painful, complicated, lengthy and takes great bravery.”