Actors have been drafted in to role-play with Irish judges who are being trained in how to run courtrooms during sensitive sexual assault and rape cases.
The move is part of a programme initiated in response to recommendations on how Irish courts and the legal process can function most appropriately in such cases.
According to the programme of a two-day course held in August, the judges took part in a two-hour session during which they engaged in role play with actors on the theme of “vulnerable persons in court”.
The course, designed by the Dutch Judicial Training College, also included a participation exercise and discussion around vulnerable people in court, as well as training in “questioning and attention to personal aspects (avoiding re-traumatisation)”.
To date, eight judges involved in such hearings have completed the programme and they will now assist in the training of their colleagues in the future. The next phase is to be rolled out by the end of the year.
The specialist training, which is also under way for lawyers, follows the publication last year of the Review of Protections for Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Offences by Prof Tom O’Malley.
In the report, he recommended that appropriate steps should be taken to ensure judges and lawyers were familiar with aspects of the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 relating to the questioning of victims during sexual offence trials.
“All judges presiding over criminal trials for sexual offences and all lawyers appearing in such trials should have specialist training which equips them with an understanding of the experience of victims of sexual crime,” his report notes.
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, which offers support to victims during court proceedings, was invited to give an introductory talk to the eight judges.
The centre's chief executive Noeline Blackwell, a qualified solicitor, said the Judicial Council overseeing the training was taking it seriously but cautioned that systemic change would take time to enact.
“It’s hard for people to go into court who are rank amateurs to talk about things you normally wouldn’t talk about,” she said. “Judges cannot be assumed to know things about the impact of sexual offences on a victim. That may simply not have been in their practice. It’s really important that they get this training to understand a particular impact.”
Ms Blackwell said while Ireland has come a long way in recent times, it has generally lagged behind other EU countries in such an approach.
“Last year was the first time [in Ireland] it was recognised that people may be particularly vulnerable in the courtroom simply by the type of crime they have experienced,” she said.