The Irish Times view on criminal justice: giving victims their place

Victims occupy an ambiguous place in the criminal justice system; at best they are peripheral, at worst invisible

Victims occupy an ambiguous place in the criminal justice system; at best they are peripheral, at worst invisible. An adversarial structure that pits the State against defendants has always struggled to find a place for those against whom crimes are committed. In principle that’s a problem, as it offends against one of the chief purposes of the court process, which is – in the eyes of the public if not in the eyes of the law – that it gives that victim a sense of dignity restored and justice received. But it also has real practical consequences. It is estimated that just one in 10 victims of sexual violence report the crime, and it is widely accepted that one of the reasons is that victims are deterred by what they regard as a hostile court system.

Some useful changes over recent years have attempted to address the problem. Trials now regularly hear directly from victims, who are given an opportunity to describe the impact of a crime. The Director of Public Prosecutions can now explain to families why she takes certain decisions. The Courts Service can assist victims in navigating a forbidding system.

A further, significant step forward came this week with the publication by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee of a plan to implement the recommendations of a report by the legal academic Tom O’Malley. The report, commissioned in the wake of the 2018 Belfast rugby rape trial and published in August, made 52 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by Government. They include legal representation for victims in certain circumstances and new legislation on pre-trial hearings to allow for the examination of matters that legal teams intend to raise at trial, including a victim’s sexual history. Training and education, a chief focus of the O’Malley report, will be extended across the criminal justice system.

These changes alone will not dismantle every barrier a victim encounters in the system. Nor will change happen overnight. But if implemented fully and quickly, they will make the system more humane and more compassionate for the most vulnerable people it serves.