Sexual offences: a system in need of change

The legal system fails to recognise the singular sensitivities involved in rape cases

By insisting that rape and sexual assault be dealt with in much the same way as a car robbery, the criminal justice system fails to recognise the singular sensitivities involved in cases such as these.  Photograph: Frank Miller

By insisting that rape and sexual assault be dealt with in much the same way as a car robbery, the criminal justice system fails to recognise the singular sensitivities involved in cases such as these. Photograph: Frank Miller

A criminal justice system that deters victims from reporting crime is failing at the most fundamental level. Yet the rape trial that concluded in Belfast yesterday with not guilty verdicts for all four defendants, has underlined the wider structural flaws that contribute to such a low rate of reporting of sexual offences.

Some features of the Belfast trial were peculiar to the legal regime north of the Border. In the Republic, the public would not have been allowed in court. Nor would the defendants have been identified – Irish law has a long-established practice, designed to protect anonymity, of requiring that those accused of rape cannot be named before conviction; and then only if doing so will not identify the victim or, alternatively, with the victim’s assent. Those jurisdictional differences notwithstanding, by insisting that rape and sexual assault be dealt with in much the same way as a car robbery, both systems fail to recognise the singular sensitivities involved in cases such as these.

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