Sexual attack survivor to discuss legal reforms with Minister

Sarah Grace says aspects of what victims face in court are ‘barbaric’ and ‘unacceptable’

Sarah Grace was attacked in her apartment in Grand Canal Dock in Dublin in July 2019. Photograph: Alison Grace

Sarah Grace was attacked in her apartment in Grand Canal Dock in Dublin in July 2019. Photograph: Alison Grace

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A sexual attack survivor has said provisions allowing victims to be questioned about their sexual history or allowing the accused to personally cross-examine them in court were “barbaric” and had “no place in modern law”.

Sarah Grace, a solicitor, outlined seven specific areas for legal reform in an open letter to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, published on Monday. Both women will meet on Tuesday to discuss the suggested reforms.

In the letter Ms Grace raises the lack of legal representation for victims in Ireland. She writes that although she understands victims cannot be coached, they should have some sort of legal support to prepare. “There is a stark difference between telling the victim what to say and allowing a highly vulnerable person to mentally prepare for the ordeal that is the trial,” she writes.

She has also called for training of barristers targeting certain behaviours in cross-examination such as “aggressive posturing, intimidation, using highly insensitive language, introducing a victim’s underwear in court”.

Ms Grace was attacked in her apartment in Grand Canal Dock in Dublin in July 2019. She was strangled, bitten and subjected to serious sexual violence, when a stranger broke into her bedroom while she slept. Her attacker, Ibrahim Elghynaoui, was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 10 years in prison earlier this month.

Open letter to Minister for Justice

In an interview with The Irish Times following the sentencing, Ms Grace outlined the traumatic experience of the attack, her issues with navigating the legal system and her process of healing, to offer instruction to survivors.

In the aftermath of the interview, Ms Grace was drafting an open letter to the Minister when the Department of Justice contacted her to arrange a meeting. She has praised the department and Helen McEntee for their responsiveness.

Seven reforms

The seven areas of reform Ms Grace’s letter identifies relate to counselling records, the use of screens at trial, legal representation for victims, issues with cross-examining victims, training for barristers, the definition of rape, and issues regarding victim anonymity.

She says it is “unacceptable” that victims’ private therapy notes can be sought by a defence in preparation for trial where there are charges of sexual violence being brought.

On the use of a physical screen at trial, which Ms Grace managed to successfully advocate for in her case, she writes that “victims should give evidence by default behind a screen or by video-link in all rape and sexual violence cases”.

In questioning the definition of rape in Irish law, Ms Grace writes, “Rape should include all non-consensual penetration”. During the attack, Ms Grace was penetrated with a violent punch by her attacker, but in Irish law this crime was not characterised as rape, but as “aggravated sexual assault”. In Irish law, non-consensual penetration by a finger or hand is not classified as rape, whereas penetration with a hand-held object is.

On Friday Ms McEntee said she “read the article in the paper and I think, like a lot of people, while she’s a little bit younger than me, my first instinct was ‘Oh my God, that could have been me’.”

Speaking on RTÉ Radio, Ms McEntee commended Ms Grace and said through people outlining their lived experience within the criminal justice system, she could ensure the plans her department were putting in place would “actually work”. Officials in the Department of Justice are currently drafting a new Sexual Offences Bill, which will be published towards the end of the year.