The Irish Times view: Working group review into sex crimes must be acted on
If implemented quickly, the report could prove a long overdue turning point in the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes
A working group commissioned by the Government to review how sex crimes are investigated and prosecuted in the Republic has left the court process largely intact. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Two years after the conclusion of the Belfast rape trial, a working group asked by the Government to review how sex crimes are investigated and prosecuted in the Republic, and how vulnerable witnesses are treated, has completed its work. It concludes that some of the issues of most concern during the Belfast trial – members of the public posting on social media and the complainant’s identity apparently being leaked – could not occur in the Republic because, unlike in the North, members of the public are not permitted to attend such trials.
In order to build on those better practices in the Republic, it has recommended that almost all sex crime trials – not only rape and the other most serious offences – proceed in courtrooms cleared of members of the public. It suggests the ban of “broadcasting” or “publishing” the identity of an accused person or victim in many sex crime cases should be extended to include members of the public posting on social media.
The group concludes that being accused of a sex crime carries such stigma that those put on trial should not be identified unless and until they are convicted.
Chaired by barrister and legal academic Tom O’Malley, the expert group has left the court process largely intact; opting to suggest improvements rather than an overhaul. For example, the highly adversarial questioning of complainants, even on deeply personal matters, would still be permitted because defendants have a right to a stout defence. But the group says judges should intervene in such instances if required.
And it says if defence lawyers want to question a defendant about their previous sexual history, they should have to first go before newly proposed pre-trial hearings, at which the complainant would be legally represented.
The group has called for specialist training for judges, all gardaí, lawyers and others who come into contact with sex crime victims in order that they understand the ordeal such victims go through. It believes the roll-out of the Garda’s specialist sex crime units is taking too long and should be completed urgently. It also recommends better facilities for victims and vulnerable witnesses, in courts and Garda interview suites.
The report is a detailed road map for reform that retains those parts of the justice system that work and recommends useful improvements where they are needed.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has promised to bring an implementation plan to Government within 10 weeks. That plan should be costed and funding made available. If implemented quickly, the report could prove a long overdue turning point in the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes and for the supportive and respectful treatment of victims and vulnerable witnesses.