Monday 16 September 2019

Three-year delays in start of sex offence trials branded 'unacceptable' by barristers

Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Sex offence cases are taking up to three years to get trial, according to barristers who have branded the delays as "unacceptable".

The Council of the Bar of Ireland, the representative body for barristers, said while some judges were taking practical steps to ensure trials are held within a reasonable period, the reality was there were lengthy delays in parts of the country.

The Bar Council added that a reasonable objective should be to hold a trial no more than 12 to 14 months after the defendant is charged in a sex offence case.

The comments were made in a submission to a review group chaired by criminal justice expert Tom O'Malley, which is examining the protection of vulnerable witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences.

The review was ordered by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan in the fallout from the Belfast rugby rape trial, in which former international rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were found not guilty.

The Bar Council said reducing the time period between charge and trial, which is often criticised by both complainants and accused persons, was "a paramount concern".

It advocated the use of pre-trial hearings to deal with certain applications that could help shorten trials. But it said this would work in alleviating delays only if more judges are appointed to hear cases.

Among the issues being looked at by the O'Malley review is whether defendants should remain anonymous in rape trials.

That is currently the situation in the Republic of Ireland. The defendant can be named only if there is a conviction and the identification does not endanger the anonymity of the complainant, or the complainant waives their anonymity.

This contrasts with the situation in Northern Ireland.

A review carried out there by former Lord Justice of Appeal John Gillen in the aftermath of the Belfast rape trial recommended that the present system in the North remain in place, namely that defendants are named "post-charge".

He said there was no good argument for a distinction between an accused in such cases and those charged with other serious offences.

However, the Bar Council advocated maintaining the system in use in the Republic, which it said "contains an appropriate balance" in that accused persons may be named if they are convicted, subject to statutory restrictions to protect the complainant's privacy.

"The council does not believe that naming accused persons pre-trial would increase reporting of sexual offences," it said.

"Other steps need to be taken in that arena to support complainants to report assaults on them and also to increase the supports available to them when they report such crimes."

The Bar Council submission also called for new legislation to deal with contempt of court and the use of social media.

It described support for vulnerable witnesses as "an absolute priority" and said its training programmes had been promoting "the adaptation of adversarial skills to achieve fair trial outcomes".

But it argued against suggestions that complainants should have legal representation themselves. It said the addition of another legal team is unlikely to improve the trial process and carries a real risk that it will cause confusion and damage the integrity of the trial.

The Bar Council added the DPP already has a role to ensure a judge gives appropriate rulings on any evidential and legal issues in a trial.

Irish Independent

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