Rape trial reform: recommendations due by end of summer

Minister promised to examine ‘cold process’ for victims after Belfast rape trial

Among the issues being examined is the provision of legal aid to victims to allow them their own legal representation during the trial. Photograph: Getty

Among the issues being examined is the provision of legal aid to victims to allow them their own legal representation during the trial. Photograph: Getty

 

A review aimed at reforming rape and sexual assault trials is to be completed before the end of the summer.

The review, which is focusing on improving the protection of victims’ rights during trial, was initiated last month by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, who said the court system must not be a “cold and distant” place for complainants.

This followed the acquittal of rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding of rape charges in Belfast in March. The men’s trial and the treatment in court of the complainant resulted in protests across the island calling for reform of the systems, both north and south.

On Wednesday, Mr Flanagan told The Irish Times he expects to issue a preliminary report on the issue “over the course of the summer months”.

The Minister has already met women’s and victims’ rights groups, including the Rape Crisis Network and Women’s Aid, and members of the legal profession, to canvass their views on reform. “I gathered very useful evidence from them. I want to acknowledge their engagement with me,” he said.

Among the issues being examined is the provision of legal aid to victims to allow them their own legal representation during the trial. Currently a complainant in a trial is only a witness for the prosecution and has no special status or right to counsel, except if their past sexual history is being raised.

Women’s groups say a separate lawyer representing the victim could intervene to protect their rights and welfare, including in the face of aggressive cross-examination by defence counsel.

Pre-recorded evidence

Other considerations include allowing victims to pre-record their evidence so they don’t have to face their alleged attackers in court, and the provision of specialist training for gardaí and lawyers dealing with rape complaints.

Mr Flanagan said on Wednesday that two categories of changes are being considered. The first involves policy and procedural changes, which could be introduced quickly without the need for legislation. These include reforms to court procedures “to ensure that level of discomfort for vulnerable witnesses can be eased”.

The provision of a screen to shield the victim in court and training for gardaí and lawyers would fall into this category.

The second category involves legislative changes, which would take longer. For example, providing separate legal representation for complainants would require its own legislation as well as significant increases to the legal aid budget.

Authorities in Northern Ireland have also announced a review of procedures there, including the introduction of anonymity for those accused of rape, which is already in place in the Republic.

Retired judge John Gillen is leading the review in Northern Ireland and is expected to report in January.