Sunday 18 August 2019

'Unacceptable' delays in sexual offences trials criticised by lawyers

Stock picture
Stock picture
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Lawyers have hit out at “unacceptable” delays in trials for sexual offences, saying some cases are only getting underway three years after the accused was charged.

The representative body for barristers said that while some judges were taking practical steps to ensure sexual offences trials are held within a reasonable period, the reality is there are lengthy delays in certain parts of the country.

Council of the Bar of Ireland said a reasonable objective should be to hold trial no more than 12 to 14 months after the defendant is charged.

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 Minster Charlie Flanagan in the fall-out from the Belfast rape trial, where former international rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted.

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

It advocated the use of pre-trial hearings to deal with certain applications which could help shorten trials.

But is said this would only work in alleviating delays 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 presently the situation in the Republic of Ireland and the defendant can only be named 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 in the aftermath of the Belfast rape trial by a former Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir John Gillen, recommended that the present system in the North remain in place, namely that defendants are named “post-charge” on the basis that there was no good argument for a distinction between an accused in such cases compared to 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, albeit 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. 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 do report such crimes,” it said.

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

The council also described support for vulnerable witnesses as an “an absolute priority” and said that 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 throughout the trial process.

The council said the addition of another legal team is unlikely to improve the trial process and, instead, carries a real risk that it will cause confusion and damage the integrity of the trial.

“The DPP, through her counsel, already has a role to ensure that a trial judge gives appropriate rulings and directions on any evidential and legal issues in a trial,” the submission said.

The submission also said lessons needed to be learned from the UK, where 47 rape or sexual offences cases had to be abandoned last year over failures to disclose evidence to the defence.

It said disclosure of statements and materials had become the most difficult issue for legal practitioners due in part to the complexities associated with large volumes of material.

This was being compounded by a lack of financial resources, personnel and expertise.

“While some improvements have been made under the disclosure heading, the council is concerned that the issue is not being approached in a principled, thematic or organised fashion,” it said.

“A major problem for everybody is that this increases the risks of a miscarriage of justice occurring.”

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News