On March 24th, the Oireachtas Justice Committee began hearing evidence on the issues surrounding giving testimony by victims of rape and sexual assault. As well as receiving numerous submissions, the committee will listen to oral evidence from the Department of Justice, the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, Men’s Aid, One in Four, and the Bar of Ireland.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) published the submission is made to the committee. The DRCC thinks that sexual abuse victims should benefit from independent legal representation for the entire criminal trial and not just for the questions about their previous sexual history. This position was previously rejected by a report published by the Department of Justice in August 2020, titled “Review of Protections for Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of sexual assault.”
Mr. Tom O’ Malley SC led the review. However, the report did endorse improved access to legal advice and representation in particular circumstances. The report also recognised that the term “vulnerable witness”, which usually refers to a vulnerable person due to disability or age, could refer to people who may be vulnerable in the context of a sexual offense trial, and that the trial itself could make someone vulnerable.
The DRCC, in their submission, has expressed the opinion that the O’ Malley report underestimated the experience and rights of victims. They advocate for a victim-centered approach, which recognises the varying capacity of victims to process their trauma, to be taken when the criminal justice system processes rape or sexual assault cases. This means “treating victims with care, respect and recognising the particular difficulties and needs facing those who have experienced this unique crime and the social stigma.”
Regarding legal support for victims, the DRCC submitted that when sexual abuse victims are giving evidence, unlike other victims, their reputation is at stake. The victim’s evidence is the primary evidence in the trial. They are open to vigorous cross-examination by the accused’s legal team, “The victim, without legal representation, without legal preparation for the evidence they will give is therefore uniquely disadvantaged in such a case.”. In their submission to the committee, the DRCC is asking that at the least victims be given access to “timely legal advice… which is not contingent upon a prosecution being instigated.” The DRCC also pointed to advancements in legislation at both the national and EU level which will impact the rights of victims such as the EU Directive on Victims’ Rights and the Victims of Crime Act 2017.
The chairperson of the Committee, James Lawless BL, has said there is recognition that victims of sexual assault can find giving evidence very traumatic, and the process can exacerbate their suffering. He further stated, “Members look forward to discussing these sensitive matters with the stakeholders and hearing their experiences of how victims’ testimony in rape and sexual assault cases operate in the Irish court’s system”