The Irish Times view on sexual offences: a system ready for reform

Sentences for rape have been steadily getting tougher for the past 15 years

A report on sexual offences in the Republic by the barrister and legal academic Thomas O’Malley is expected imminently. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

A report on sexual offences in the Republic by the barrister and legal academic Thomas O’Malley is expected imminently. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Most of the time, the courts go about their work without impinging much on the thoughts of the public at large, save for those unfortunate enough to find themselves involved in proceedings. One issue that has regularly trained public attention – and ire – on the courts, however, has been a perception that judges are too lenient, and at times inconsistent, in sentencing rapists. In no area of the law, arguably, has there been a greater gap between the system and public expectations of it.

Against that background, it is encouraging to see a steady increase in the severity of rape sentences. The average sentence for rape has been increasing for the past 15 years, and the Courts Service annual report for 2019 shows that trend continuing, with 63 per cent of convicted rapists having received more than 10 years in jail. That’s an increase from 43 per cent in 2018.

Sentencing is just one of many areas in which the courts have been failing rape survivors, however. The system forces victims into an adversarial courtroom, where they have no formal status and where their choice of clothing and their sexual histories are treated as fair game. Cases take several years to come to trial, which prolongs the cruelty for victims and results in many of them, not surprisingly, withdrawing their complaints.

In Northern Ireland, a 2018 report by retired judge John Gillen made useful recommendations, including legal representation for complainants and pre-recorded cross-examinations. A report on sexual offences in the Republic by the legal academic Thomas O’Malley is expected imminently. The implementation of that report will be one of the first tests facing new Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.

In any trial, the accused has a right to a fair trial. That principle is sacrosanct. But it co-exists with the State’s obligations to those who suffer a violent sexual crime. That is to say nothing of the normative power of the courts in shaping views and embodying society’s values. At present, the legal system’s handling of sexual offences trails badly behind the community it serves.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.