Sunday 15 September 2019

Alleged rape victims to get support in court in wake of Belfast case

Review: Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Mark Condren
Review: Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Mark Condren
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan is considering the introduction of advocates who would attend court to assist alleged rape victims in the wake of the recent high-profile trial in Belfast.

Mr Flanagan said the Northern Ireland trial "resulted in great anxiety across the country" and he expects a review of how rape cases are handled here will be finished by the end of the summer.

Concerns arose about how rapes trials are carried out after the Belfast case where the woman who made the complaint faced questions from four separate legal teams.

That case ended in the acquittal of all four defendants, including Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding who were found not guilty of rape.

There have been calls from campaign groups and Fianna Fáil for complainants in rape cases to be provided with their own legal representation. Mr Flanagan said this was under consideration as part of the ongoing review but he said it is a "challenge" due to the nature of Ireland's common law system, where the State brings cases on behalf of complainants.

Mr Flanagan said he did not expect the matter to be resolved early.

But he said he hopes to have two forms of proposed measures prepared at the end of the summer - legislative changes - and others involving practice and procedure that "can be done in the more immediate term".

"I think there's much more we can do in that regard in order to assist vulnerable witnesses. An advocate for example attending the court, assisting a vulnerable witness before, during and after [the trial] is important."

Mr Flanagan stressed this would be different to legal representation.

He said: "I met many advocacy groups formally here in the department in order to see how best we could set about improving the situation for vulnerable witnesses and complainants."

He added that one concern raised with him as part of the review concerned the delays and uncertainty surrounding court cases and he is keen to ensure that more judges are appointed.

He said another issue of importance was Garda training in sensitive cases relating to sexual offences and he said this is being rolled out.

"We need to ensure that the gardaí are fully trained to deal with the unique circumstances of these cases," he said.

Mr Flanagan's remarks come as new protections for victims of crime have been brought into force. The measures introduced in recent days are separate to anything which may emerge from his review of how rape cases are handled,

Mr Flanagan told the Irish Independent the new provisions must be seen against the background of "what is a very adversarial courts system in Ireland". He said this system saw the State pitched against the defendant and meant that vulnerable complainants and witnesses needed to be supported, "particularly in cases of a sexual nature".

Under the new procedures, defendants in rape and other sexual-offences cases who choose to act as their own legal representatives no longer have the automatic right to directly cross-examine their alleged victim. It is now up to the judge to decide if this will be allowed, with free legal aid being offered to defendants who have been refused permission to conduct cross-examinations themselves.

There is also a provision allowing for the regulation of the use of sensitive counselling records in sexual-offence trials.

Mr Flanagan said this was an "important new safeguard", which would ensure that the appropriateness of disclosing such information may be considered at a pre-trial hearing that would take into account the impact it may have on complainants.

More broadly, other victims of crime can now avail of the option of giving evidence by video-link or behind a screen.

This was previously only available to complainants in sexual or violent-crime trials.

And the use of an intermediary or pre-recorded statement will be available to child victims of any crime.

Mr Flanagan said: "Our criminal justice system needs to be a warmer place, needs to be a more understanding place, and needs to accommodate complainants and indeed vulnerable witnesses in a new way.

"This is an issue that's close to my heart because I practiced law for many years and I have seen at first hand the very cold and distant nature of our courts system for many people," he added. He said he is pleased the Victims of Crime Act has been implemented as it ensures they are at the centre of the courts system.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News