A working group set up to review how vulnerable witnesses in sexual offences cases are treated has made more than 50 recommendations.
These include anonymity for defendants - unless and until they are convicted - as well as victims, in all sexual offence trials including sexual assault, and the introduction of preliminary hearings to help avoid delays in such cases.
The O’Malley Review of Protections for Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Offences, chaired by NUI Galway law lecturer and barrister Tom O'Malley (pictured), was set up after concerns prompted by a high-profile rape trial in Belfast in 2018 in which two rugby players were acquitted.
The group points out, however, that if a similar trial had taken place in the Republic, it would not have been open to the public and the identities of the accused persons would not have been revealed unless they were convicted. It recommends that the exclusion of the public from sex offences trials be retained and extended to sexual assault cases.
Among the review’s broader recommendations are the promotion of better awareness of victims’ rights legislation; promoting education about the meaning and importance of consent; improving inter-agency co-operation and exchange of information, especially in relation to services for victims; and ensuring consistency in service delivery.
It says victims should be provided with legal advice from the outset and after the trial where one results in a conviction.
Although the review does not back separate legal representation for victims throughout a trial, it “strongly supports” the retention of the existing law which allows for separate legal representation while an application is being made to a trial court to question a victim about other sexual experience under Section 3 of the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981.
The group goes further and recommends that any defence application for this type of questioning should be made at a preliminary hearing, “so that arrangements can be put in place to ensure that appropriately experienced counsel are briefed to represent the victim for this purpose”.
Reacting to the report, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said she would develop an implementation plan, working with the NGO sector and stakeholders, and report back to Government with a detailed plan of action within ten weeks.
Overall, the recommendations are intended to improve the present system by ensuring, as far as possible, that victims of sexual crime have access to information and advice from the time at which the offence was committed, that they will be kept informed of the progress of investigation, that they will be facilitated in giving their best evidence if called as witnesses and that they will be treated with respect and dignity throughout the process.
The review recommends specialist training for Gardaí, legal professionals and others who are participating in sexual offences investigations and trials.
It also calls for the roll-out of Divisional Protective Services Units (DPSUs), specialist Garda units which investigate alleged sexual offences, to every division in the state “as soon as practically possible”. These units began to be established on a phased basis in 2017.
The review team held a number of meetings with interested parties and also received submissions from a number of stakeholders, including the Law Society of Ireland.