Saturday 23 March 2019

Our justice system is failing rape and sex assault victims

While the reporting of sexual crime to An Garda Siochana increased by over 50pc between 2008 - 2012, fewer cases are being prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) than in the past.
While the reporting of sexual crime to An Garda Siochana increased by over 50pc between 2008 - 2012, fewer cases are being prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) than in the past.

Marie Keenan

It may be a well-known fact but it needs to be said again - the criminal justice system is failing victims of rape and sexual crime.

Since the 'Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland' (SAVI) study was published in 2002, when we discovered that 42pc of Irish females and 28pc of Irish males experienced sexual violence over the course of their lifetime, we have been busy asking victims to report their offences to the police so that we could get justice for them. SAVI had found that merely 1pc of Irish males and 8pc of Irish females had reported their experiences of sexual assault to the police and we wanted that to change. Justice must be done, we told victims, report and we will get you justice.

Well, guess what - we are letting victims of rape and sexual assault down even more now than we were in the past. The reality is that while the reporting of sexual crime to An Garda Siochana increased by over 50pc between 2008 - 2012, fewer cases are being prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) than in the past. For example, in 2012 relevant proceedings were taken in merely 15.3pc of all reported sexual assault cases and 15pc of all reported rape cases. This compares with 73pc of all reported rape cases in 1977. And to add insult to injury, conviction rates for rape in Ireland are also low. In fact, in 2006 Ireland ranked 20th out of 22 European countries in terms of conviction rates for rape.

Only two countries were worse.

In a sample of 100 rape cases that had been reported, although a suspect was identified in three-quarters of them (75), only 18 suspects were charged and only 16 proceeded to trial, of which eight were ultimately convicted. Similar to findings in Australian research, it is not an underestimation to say that one in every 100 rape victims will get justice through the criminal courts. And justice is what we promised.

My research tells us that following long delays in the investigative process, and months of waiting to hear from the DPP on whether charges are to be brought, the victim of rape will get a call to say 'thank you but sorry, the DPP has decided there is insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution'.

The State is taking the complaint no further. This leaves a lot of justice gaps for victims who are deeply unhappy with the lack of criminal prosecutions being taken, and a lot of accountability gaps for offenders, who walk freely, devoid of accountability for the crimes they have committed.

So something needs to be done, and it needs to be done quickly. I would like Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who is committed to putting victims at the centre of a justice response, to seek answers from the DPP as to why sexual violence cases are not proceeding. The victims in my study do not want to hear about "insufficient evidence", which is cold comfort to them when they have put themselves through the whole reporting and forensic investigative process, waited with enormous difficulty for the unnecessarily long 18 months to two years that it took for an adjudication in their case and trusted that truth mattered and that the State would help deliver justice. I would also like the minister to seek answers from the DPP as to why there are such long delays in making decisions on cases, sometimes from six to 12 months, even when there are admissions by the offenders to the Garda. The victims and offenders in my research said the delays at every stage of the criminal justice system are crippling for them and their families.

So where does restorative justice come into this picture? It is an additional justice mechanism that victims want, not instead of criminal proceedings, but as an addition.

All cohorts of participants in my research, including victims, offenders, judges and politicians, acknowledge the justice gaps in the criminal justice system. All support the call for restorative justice in cases of sexual violence as an additional justice mechanism for victims and see the potential benefit for offenders. Restorative justice offers victims an opportunity to face their offender, to put questions to them, to make statements, to face their fears, to 'change the memory card' of the assault and to rebalance the power dynamics, following the abuse of power that is involved in sexual crime.

Offenders have an opportunity to do something honourable, to listen to the victim, to give account and to express sorrow and regret.

While restorative justice must now be made available for victims of sexual crime who want it, it can never be a substitute for criminal proceedings for those victims who wish to also make a criminal complaint.

No amount of restorative justice will ever fix the gaps in the current criminal justice system for victims. Those justice gaps must be fixed regardless of restorative justice initiatives.

Dr Marie Keenan is a forensic psychotherapist and lecturer in UCD

Irish Independent

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