Support for victims in court urged
GOING TO court as a victim of crime is a daunting prospect. The courtroom can seem intimidating, the legal system bewildering, outcomes are unpredictable and victims may come away feeling they’ve been given too rough a time or have been denied justice.
In the past few years, there have been moves to make the system less intimidating for victims but support groups say more could be done.
The new Criminal Courts of Justice (CCJ) building in Dublin includes rooms for victims and witnesses with a separate entrance so their contact with defendants is minimised. Court liaison officers, from volunteer organisation Victim Support at Court, accompany them during trials.
A Victims’ Charter, produced by the Victims of Crime Office at the Department of Justice in 2010, sets out the rights and entitlements of victims. The 72-page document has chapters dealing with An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the coroners and other agencies.
Gardaí, for example, are obliged to keep victims informed of the criminal investigation, according to the charter, and the local Garda superintendent is supposed to keep in contact with the families of murder and manslaughter victims.
The charter also says the Courts Service will provide facilities and services including victim waiting rooms and video-link facilities for vulnerable witnesses in some courthouses. They also provide reserved seating for the family of the deceased in murder and manslaughter cases at the Criminal Courts of Justice. Victims can also visit the courthouse before the trial if they wish.
In the last 10 years, most of the major courthouses in the country have been refurbished to include some form of victim support facilities, the Courts Service says.
Maeve Ryan, service co-ordinator with Crime Victims Helpline, a national free service that dealt with 3,200 calls last year, says people are deeply affected by crimes that may seem relatively trivial like muggings or burglaries.
There may be a sense of violation, of not feeling safe again in one’s home or on particular streets, and of being unable to sleep. Once a crime is reported the victim assumes, she says, it will be dealt with quickly.
“But the process can be very slow, necessarily so as the guards have to work through statements, gathering evidence.”
The main issues that upset victims, over and above the actual crime, are the perceived lack of communication from gardaí about how the case is progressing, the way they feel ignored in the process and how long it all takes to get to court, if indeed it ever does.
“It is very difficult for the victim. The crime is uppermost in their mind every day and obviously the Garda can’t call them every day or every week with an update,” she says. “In reality, the Garda are very busy. One suggestion we have put forward is that there should be a victim liaison Garda in each station who can be specifically there to stay in touch with victims.”
Court liaison officers work to help make the experience of the victim easier once in court.
Patricia MacBride, chairwoman of Victim Support at Court, which operates in the Criminal Courts of Justice and in Tallaght, says they meet victims in advance, show them around the court and familiarise them with procedures. They also accompany them each day in the courtroom. Since January they have accompanied people in 476 trials, never turning anyone away.
While facilities at the Criminal Courts of Justice are state-of-the-art, elsewhere, such as in Tallaght District Court where the group also works, the same facilities for separation do not exist. Providing those facilities everywhere would help victims. The group would also like to roll out its service nationwide. Ms MacBride says victims “worry about not understanding the process . . . giving evidence, they are afraid they are on trial. They think there is no room for error. Having court accompaniment has helped people feel more confident.”
She would also like to see improvements in the interaction between the barrister representing the Director of Public Prosecutions and the victim or family of the victim beyond the initial briefing. Sometimes people need more information, for example when a plea bargain is entered.
“The level of engagement you can expect varies greatly depending on the individual barrister who is representing the DPP,” she says. “If there were standard rules of engagement that would be really useful.”
Ellen O’Malley Dunlop, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre would also like to see changes in the attitude of some barristers.
“We have seen barristers stand with one leg on a chair in a very intimidating way while cross-examining a victim. There should be some rules about how that cross-examination should be done to make it less intimidating.”
It would also help victims if the DPP gave reasons why some cases are not sent forward for trial. “It would be really helpful for the healing process to know why,” she says.
For victims of domestic violence, accompaniment is also very important when they apply for safety or barring orders.
Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid, which provided such a service to 142 women last year, says it is difficult to walk into the courtroom – the women is going into the same space as her attacker. “If there was a focus on confidentiality and on safety, that would make a huge difference.”
* The Crime Victims Freephone Helpline: 116 006 or text 0851337711; Rape Crisis Centre National Helpline: 1800 77 88 88;
* AdVic, advocates for victims of crime: 086 01272156;
* Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline: 1800 341 900;
* Victim Support at Court: (01) 872 8765 or Mobile: 087 288 5521.