Women’s rights groups in Northern Ireland have issued five key demands aimed at giving victims of sexual violence better protection in the criminal justice system.
The Northern Ireland women’s rights movement which includes the Belfast Feminist Network, Reclaim the Night and Alliance for Choice has prepared an open letter demanding:
- Reform of the criminal justice system which they say re-traumatises victims, is not fit for purpose and is designed to defend the rights of the accused;
- No reporting of sexual crimes court cases until the conclusion of the trial as activists feel reporting of rape trials is intrusive, salacious and biased toward undermining a complainant’s testimony;
- The “rampant culture of victim blaming and shaming” should be addressed by the criminal justice system, the media and others;
- Compulsory comprehensive relationship and sexuality education programmes should be introduced in all schools to include consent and toxic masculinity; and
- Support services for victims and survivors of rape and sexual abuse should be adequately resourced.
The call comes in the wake of demonstrations in Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick over the past week in solidarity with all victims of sexual crime.
These rallies were staged in the wake of a Belfast Crown Court jury last week finding two Ireland and Ulster rugby players not guilty of the rape of a then 19-year-old woman in 2016.
The Green Party’s South Belfast MLA Clare Bailey, a signatory of the letter, said the five key demands had been drafted as “the end of the trial has culminated in Ireland’s Me Too moment”, referencing the international #MeToo social media campaign around sexual harassment.
Ms Bailey said she did not support anonymity for defendants in rape and other sexual crime cases as naming abusers – like Jimmy Savile or Fr Malachy Finnegan – gave other "others the confidence to come forward", she said.
But “the five demands will go far to address and change attitudes toward women across the island”.
While Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has said he will review the legal protection offered to complainants in sexual assault cases in the Republic, the North is without an equivalent minister as there has been no devolved government in place since January 2017.
The Nexus rape and sexual abuse charity said it had 800 people on a waiting list for the specialist counselling and support services it offered.
Chief executive Cara Cash said in terms of reform “anything that makes the experience more victim-friendly would be welcome”.
“The anonymity question is one we definitely support some investigation around. We also think that it is vital we get some training to the judiciary about the impact of sexually violent crime, and similarly to juries.”
Ms Cash said many people do not appreciate the ways a person can react to trauma – often characterised as fight, flight, freeze, friend, flop – and in the current system “victims cannot bring in expert witnesses to back this up so it often falls on deaf ears”.
Ms Cash also believes victims need appropriate therapeutic support to help them cope with the often-traumatising nature of trials.
Women's rights activist and former Marie Stopes clinic director Dawn Purvis said Mr Flanagan is "heading in the right direction in terms of independent legal representation for complainants in rape trials".
Reflecting on her own experience of a court case regarding harassment she says complainants feel “very alone and very exposed”.
“It’s a very scary place to be in a courtroom,” she said.
Ms Purvis also does not believe there should be anonymity for defendants as them being named encourages other complainants to come forward.“It is happening now with [the late paedophile priest] Malachy Finnegan.”
But she is “in favour of is closed courts and evidence given in camera with the public excluded and media not allowed to report until the decision is reached regardless of the outcome”.
Ms Purvis contends another area where reform is needed is on jury education, with experts called in to assist in the process.
“There is a whole body of evidence out there that shows prejudicial social attitudes about rape can influence jury decision-making in rape trials,” she said.
“There is lots of evidence in Scotland, where there is a third verdict option of not proven, where there is the use of educational approaches where an expert talks about this.”
Ms Purvis believe challenging prejudicial social attitudes would be the start and we should see how that plays out before deciding if there needs to be a review to decide if juries are the most appropriate way to make decisions in rape cases.
She also referenced the Derry judge Barney McElholm who has called on any future Stormont government to legislate for longer jail terms for domestic violence because, at present, the maximum jail term he could impose was six months.
He said the prison sentence for cases of criminal damage was four times that amount.
“It can’t just be down to one progressive individual,” Ms Purvis said.
“We need to look at this whole area more widely.”