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‘Pilot specialist sex-offences court’ call

17 Jun 2024 / justice Print

‘Pilot specialist sex-offences court’ call

A report commissioned by the Department of Justice has made several recommendations aimed at tackling delays in the processing of sexual-violence cases in the criminal-justice system.

The report, which draws on interviews with gardaí, judges, legal practitioners, and other stakeholders, was written by Dr Marie Keenan, Dr Deirdre Healy, Gemma McLoughlin-Burke BL, and Dr Kate Keenan (University College Dublin).

It called for increased investment across the criminal-justice system, a steamlining of the disclosure process in such cases, and a review of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.

The report also urged a three-year pilot of a specialist sexual-offences court, to be in “a designated separate building from the Central Courts of Justice”.

Disclosure process

It found that the disclosure process was described by “almost every interviewee” as a significant contributor to delays.

“Key issues included the last-minute nature of disclosure requests, underpinned by the lack of attention to case preparation by counsel on both sides, sometimes until close to the trial date,” the report stated.

“A failure by the DPP’s office to respond to requests for disclosure from defence solicitors in a timely manner was also noted.

“In addition, interviewees explained that the process of locating, reviewing, redacting and sharing disclosure material is time-consuming due to the volume, complexity and sensitivity of the materials involved.”

The report referred to a culture of “last-minute-ism" in the sector, with some prosecution and defence teams only reviewing documents in the days leading up to a trial, despite case-management efforts by judges.

Legal-aid scheme ‘not fit for purpose’

Among its recommendations in this area were the creation of a checklist for gardaí to ensure that basic questions are asked of the complainant at an early stage in the process, and the introduction of “clear inter-agency agreements and systems” to streamline data-sharing between third parties, the gardaí, and the DPP.

The report said that the structure of the Criminal Legal Aid payment scheme for legal practitioners was also contributing to delays in the processing of sex crime.

It called for a “serious review and overhaul” of the scheme, describing it as “not fit for purpose in its current configuration”.

The report calls for a new payment to ensure that legal practitioners are paid for their review of disclosure, as well as a review of fees.

The authors also highlighted data deficits, saying that it had proved “impossible to locate anything other than basic information about case-processing times” during their research.

They called for significant investment in technology in this area, as well as the development of an integrated case-tracking and management system.

COVID ‘exacerbated delays’

Those interviewed noted that COVID-19 restrictions had created backlogs by disrupting court schedules and case-management processes.

They told the authors, however, that backlogs in the court system had pre-dated the pandemic, “which merely exacerbated delays in a system that was described as already verging on broken”.

Some saw a silver lining in the pandemic, however, as courts embraced innovations such as remote technology that had the potential to make the system more efficient in future.

Time limits rejected

A separate report, which reviewed international evidence on delays in sexual-violence cases, found that the best available evidence indicated that rape cases were taking much longer to process in Ireland than in England and Wales and Northern Ireland – twice as long as in the former and three times longer than in the latter.

The report said that the literature showed that most delays occurred at two points in the process: the investigative phase, running from the first report of the incident to the decision to charge; and the judicial phase running from the return for trial to the start of the trial.

It called for better interaction between the police and prosecutorial authorities, citing reviews in England that found that delays were being caused by a failure of even specialist police units to seek early guidance from prosecutors.

The report did not back enforceable time limits for cases, however.

“What would happen if the Gardai took longer than three months to complete their investigations, or it took ten months for a rape trial to get underway?” it asked.

“No matter how angry and frustrated victims might be at serial adjournments and delays, their interests are not served by prohibiting the prosecution,” the authors state.

The report suggested, however, that consideration be given to the introduction of a system of time limits as key performance indicators, with the “challenging but achievable” limits that could be reviewed regularly.

The authors also said that the introduction of a specialist trial court was “worth considering”, but that it should be staffed with new appointments rather than transfers from existing judicial resources.

Gazette Desk
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