On Thursday the 5th August the Irish Minister for Justice and Equality, Helen McEntee TD published the Review of the Protection of Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Offences, which has been chaired by Professor Tom O’Malley BL.
This Review was prompted by significant concerns about the experiences of vulnerable witnesses in criminal proceedings for sexual offences. In particular, there was unease in the wake of a trial in Belfast Crown Court in 2018, which has come to be known as the ‘Belfast rugby rape trial’.
The Review is clear that victims should retain their anonymity in all cases of sexual offences but went on to recommend that this anonymity should also be extended to those accused of sexual assault, who are not currently entitled to it.
As the law in Ireland currently stands, those accused of sexual offences other than rape or aggravated sexual assault can be named after being charged. The Review says there does not appear to be any logical reason why these accused people should be entitled to anonymity in a rape trial but not in a sexual assault trial.
The Review went on to recommend that consideration should also be given to providing anonymity to people charged with other sexual offences including child sexual exploitation offences and offences against people with mental illness and intellectual disability. It recommends the victims in the latter offences should also have anonymity which does not appear to be provided for in current legislation. However, the feeling of the Review was that there is not a strong case to be made for restricting the publication of the names of people charged with what are called child pornography offences.
The Review also recommends that the exclusion of the public from rape trials should be extended to other sexual offences and interestingly recommended that the existing legislation directing sentencing of rape cases to be carried out in public should be repealed as it could lead to identification of the victim.
In publishing the report the Minister also announced that she would develop an implementation plan, working with the NGO sector and stakeholders, and would report back to Government with a detailed plan of action within 10 weeks.
The Minister said “I want to ensure that we can effectively tackle the scourge of sexual violence, which is a blight on our society” and went on to say that “I want to ensure that the victims of sexual violence have the correct supports. That means access to their own independent legal advice or support, if they need it, someone who can be with them and explain the process and advise them throughout the process, not only while the trial is underway as is currently the case.”
The Report published today contains over 50 recommendations, with four overarching recommendations:
- promoting better awareness of victims’ rights legislation;
- promoting education about the meaning and importance of consent;
- improving inter-agency co-operation and exchange of information, especially in relation to services for victims; and
- ensuring consistency in service delivery.
The Minister indicated that a number of actions would be immediately prioritised. These include:-
- Working with the Legal Aid Board to ensure the victims of sexual crime can access the legal advice and support they need.
- Establishing a single, comprehensive source to inform victims of sexual crime of their rights and of the services available to them.
- Starting a public awareness campaign around the meaning of consent.
- Completing the rollout of the Garda Divisional Protective Services Units across the country within two months. This means every division of An Garda Síochána will have a specialised unit for the investigation of sexual violence, human trafficking, child abuse and domestic abuse.
- Prioritising the drafting of legislation to provide for preliminary hearings to help avoid delay in sexual offences cases.
- Ensuring the development of the necessary specialist programmes of training for serving members of An Garda Síochána, legal professionals and others who are participating in a professional capacity in sexual offences investigations and trials, including engagement with the newly established Judicial Council about training for judges.
The Minister indicated that the implementation plan, which will be brought to government within 10 weeks, will include timelines for delivery.
Among the issues dealt with in detail in the O’Malley report, and which will be considered as part the implementation plan, are:
- The investigation and prosecution of sexual offences.
- The anonymity of victims and defendants, public access to sexual offence trials and media reporting.
- The trial of sexual offences.
- Information for victims.
- Use of intermediaries.
- Reducing delay in the trial process .
Overall, the recommendations are intended to improve the present system by ensuring, as far as possible, that victims of sexual crime have access to information and advice from the time at which the offence was committed, that they will be kept informed of the progress of investigation, that they will be facilitated in giving their best evidence if called as witnesses and that they will be treated with respect and dignity throughout the process.
Written by James Chambers at BLM