Saturday 29 November 2014

Judges need more help if they're to really grasp complexity of rape cases

Ellen O'Malley Dunlop

Published 22/02/2014 | 02:30

I believe we can be confident that members of the judiciary are well trained in the law and in the interpretation of the law. Their role is a very important one, and we need to have confidence that they are supported in their role so that they deliver justice on behalf of all of society. In terms of their keeping abreast with changes in the law and the consequences on their work, they are the experts.

Judges have a very difficult job to do but none more complex than delivering justice in rape cases. Their job is not just about knowing the law, but it involves understanding human beings, human relationships, good and bad.

They listen to the most appalling stories of human depravity and man's inhumanity to man. I firmly believe we can have confidence in their ability to know and understand the law, and their training in the law prepares them well to be the best at what they do.

However, when judges make comments in open court that demonstrate a lack of understanding of the impact of rape, on a victim whose perpetrator was found guilty, there is public outcry and the whole judiciary becomes a target.

This is not good for public confidence in the judiciary and we need to maintain confidence so that more victims will stay the course of the criminal justice system and perpetrators of rape and sexual violence will not be allowed to act with impunity.

The following quote is only one example from a flood of comments that the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre received on the topic this week: "I'm a child of the '70s and '80s. Many, many women I know, and some men, have been sexually assaulted in some way, at some time, from molestation to multiple rapes. Abuse by friends, relatives, boyfriends, doctors, priests. Rarely the bogeyman 'stranger danger'. For all of them, it's affected them deeply for the rest of their lives, their self-esteem, trust, confidence, sense of (and capacity to enjoy) sexual well-being, belief in themselves and others, all have been damaged, eroded or diminished in some way. It's not only judges who don't know enough, it's most people. We could learn more. It's very arrogant to think we couldn't . . ."

We need our judiciary to be open to availing of specialist expert support in understanding the complexities of the impact of rape, because they are dealing with the human condition in all its guises and, unlike the law, it is multicoloured and not just black and white. Their training in law will not equip them to understand why it is that a person who is accused of the most heinous crime in their court, looks upset and is being described as a 'pillar of society' by witness after witness brought by the defence, who will corroborate this 'pillar of society' description.

On the other hand, the prosecution is presenting evidence of depraved and vile acts of evil, committed against another person who in court may not show any emotion whatsoever and may present as cold and detached.

The only way for the judiciary to grasp the layers of these complexities, and what they mean, is by getting the support and help from those who have the expertise in the area of understanding trauma and its effects.

While it is possible to read articles and attend lectures about the aftermath of sexual violence on victims, there is nothing to substitute the tailored seminars that can be provided where there are opportunities to explore the attitudes and beliefs that all of us pick up by osmosis, from the society and culture we grow up in.

We might not even be aware of holding such attitudes and beliefs but there is every evidence that they affect and influence our judgment. Some of these attitudes and beliefs will often blame the victim.

Having the expert support to educate oneself about these underlying misinformed beliefs and attitudes affords participants the opportunity to change and to make more conscious and informed decisions. As the first commentator said: "It's not only judges who don't know enough, it's most people. We could learn more."

ELLEN O'MALLEY-DUNLOP, PSYCHOTHERAPIST AND GROUP ANALYST AND CEO OF THE DUBLIN RAPE CRISIS CENTRE.

(HELPLINE FOR VICTIMS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE 1 800 77 88 88).

Irish Independent

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