The Belfast rape trial in 2018 gave rise to concerns about how the complainant was treated and her identity apparently being widely leaked.
Some members of the public appeared to attend the case to see the complainant and two of the accused, and subsequently acquitted, men – rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.
However, the Review of Protections for Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Offences group has now concluded some of those problematic features with the trial could not arise in a rape case in the Republic.
Unlike Northern Ireland, the public are not permitted to attend rape cases in the Republic, the group noted in its report to the Government and published on Wednesday.
But the expert group has still set out a series of recommendations that would make the investigation and trial process in sex crime cases easier for victims and vulnerable witness.
The group, chaired by barrister and legal academic Tom O’Malley, has said when victims first go to the Garda to report a sex crime they should be immediately provided with legal advice about the process and that advice should continue to be available to them for years, if necessary.
It says while the Garda’s teams of specialist sex crime investigators (Divisional Protective Services Units or DPSUs) are trained to deal with complainants in sex crime cases, all Garda members should undergo training in how to deal with victims.
While new Garda interview suites, where victims can be interviewed in comfort, have been established in some parts of the Republic, more are needed. If all regions had interview suites, it would mean victims and vulnerable witnesses would not need to travel very large distances to suites.
The group also said it was taking far too long for DPSUs to be established in all Garda divisions. Again, this means specialist investigators and the expertise and facilities they offer are readily available only to those victims who happen to live in regions where the units are operating. At present, while there are 28 Garda divisions, only 16 units are operating.
The expert group believes newly proposed pretrial hearings would ensure many of the matters that cause trial delays, resulting in stress for complainants or vulnerable witnesses, could be tackled and resolved before a trial begins.
Under the group’s recommendations, a complainant could still be questioned by lawyers for the accused about their previous sexual history. However, if that line of questioning was planned, the defence lawyers would be obliged to declare that at a pretrial hearing, explaining why such questions were warranted and applying for permission from the court for such a line of questioning.
The complainant would be legally represented at pretrial hearings, meaning they could make arguments against sexual history questions being put to them. And the cost of the legal representation could be covered by legal aid.
In all sex crime trials, and not only rapes or other very serious cases, the expert group has proposed the court would be cleared of the public to ensure dignity and anonymity for the complainant.
The existing ban on the media publishing the complainant’s – or accused person’s – identity would be extended to members of the public posting on social media, the expert group proposes. Modern telecommunication systems in some courthouses allow witnesses to give evidence via video link, meaning they do not have to appear in court, and it should be installed in all courthouses, the group said. At present many witnesses are denied that facility because many courthouses do not have the technology required. This means some witnesses find it impossible to give evidence, thus undermining the justice process.
The group also recommends special training for judges, solicitors, barristers and others involved in the trial process to ensure they understand the trauma sex crime victims endure and are equipped to deal with that.
With this report the Government has been presented with the perfect opportunity to help victims, vulnerable witnesses and innocent accused.