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.”