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Preliminary hearings will avoid delay in sex offence cases, says minister
Justice minister Helen McEntee Pic: RollingNews.ie

07 Sep 2020 / justice Print

Preliminary hearings will avoid delay in sex offence cases, says minister

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s therapeutic services director Angela McCarthy says that there were 5,237 calls to the DRCC specifically about rape in 2019, a dramatic increase that could reflect either an increase in the crime of rape, or in its reporting, she said.

The figure is a 11% increase on the 2018 number, and an increase of 10% on 2017.

That figure is 46% higher than the 2016 figure, when there were 3,579 calls about rape.

The figure also represents an 82% increase in the 2015 call levels of 2,876.

Total number of contacts

The 14,159 total helpline contacts show an increase of almost 6% on the 2018 figures. This is an increase of 6% on 2018, and 10% higher than in 2017.

And as COVID restrictions ease, there has been a surge in demand for Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) services, its chief executive Noeline Blackwell said today, launching the 2019 annual report.

There were 7,704 first-time callers, an increase on 4% on 2018.

Non-judgmental

The DRRC provides “constant, empathetic non-judgmental support,” chair Anne Marie Gill said at the launch.

Justice minister Helen McEntee launched the annual report and statistics supplement for 2019, today, in a pre-recorded message.

She said that, as a new justice minister, and as a woman, she was determined that the Department of Justice would drive for real and substantial change in relation to sexual violence.

“This, of course, means that the criminal justice system responds to, and supports, victims of sexual violence,” she said.

Minister McEntee added that she was disappointed to see from a DRCC survey that some do not believe that the recommendations of the O’Malley Report will improve the justice system.

“I am convinced that the reforms identified within the report have the potential to transform the manner in which sexual crime is dealt with in Ireland,” she continued, pointing out that all should be treated with dignity and respect in the justice system.

A public-education campaign about the meaning of sexual consent is planned, the minister said.

And the department is also drafting legislation to provide preliminary hearings to avoid delay in sexual-offence cases.

Specialist training programmes

Members of An Garda Síochána, the legal profession and others will all have to engage with specialist training programmes, she said.

“I am absolutely confident that rapid progress in these important areas can have significant benefits,” the minister continued.

A total of 21 Garda Divisional Protective Services units have been funded under the July stimulus programme, the minister said, with the remainder to be established by the end of September.

Minister McEntee added that she remained concerned that complainants needed a much speedier resolution of cases, and said that she shared the sense of urgency to transform the manner in which sexual violence was being dealt with in Ireland.

Revenge porn legislation

She said that legislation was also being prepared to deal with revenge porn, harassment and harmful communication, which disregard the importance of consent and contribute to a toxic environment of objectification.

“We still have a very significant problem of sexual violence … and your report paints a very stark picture,” the minister said.

The State funds 85% of the cost of DRCC therapeutic services, while the remaining 15% is raised through public and corporate fundraising, and philanthropic donations.

The organisation has launched a new webchat service in response to increasing demand for its services.

And the coronavirus crisis has led to increased anxiety and isolation among callers, and a concurrent drop in DRCC funds, the annual report says.

Stark increase

The number of those seeking therapy and counselling from DRCC also grew to 617 clients in 2019.

Some 300 people were directly supported in attending the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit following alleged rape or sexual assault.

240 friends and family

And 240 friends and family members accompanied complainants in attending this service.

DRCC reports a stark increase, of 118% over the 2018 figures, in those seeking its accompaniment through the criminal-justice system.

DRCC Chief Executive Noeline Blackwell said: “We have to underline again what a lonely place the justice system is for those who report sexual offences.”

She also said that public fundraising had “fallen off a cliff” during COVID but said both the Department of Justice and Tusla had recognised sexual-violence support as a priority service.

The DRRC was glad to see the 6 August publication of the O'Malley Report on anonymity for sex-case defendants, Blackwell said.

Public exclusion from trials

The O’Malley report recommends the continued exclusion of the public from sex offences trials in the Republic, and says this measure should be extended to sexual-assault cases.

“Home is not a safe place for so many people,” Blackwell continued, and many sexual violence complainants could not come forward during the pandemic because of a lack of privacy.

Blackwell warned that high levels of anger among abusers could escalate.

“Unfortunately, the safest place for an abuser to vent that anger is in the home, on those nearest to them, with less fear of consequences,” she explained. “We will do our level best to reach everyone who needs help.”

Blackwell said the current legal system was inimical to the proper treatment of sexual offences.

40th anniversary

Last year, DRCC celebrated its 40th anniversary. It made nine submissions and several other policy interventions across criminal justice, communications, human rights, health education and victim’s rights.

In 2019, DRCC developed an online counselling support called ‘Moving Forward from Sexual Violence’, which began early this year and has been used by 60 people.

DRCC also announced a revamped website, including a webchat service that allows people to get online text support.

One-fifth of DRCC clients reported abuse at the hands of intimate partners, ex-partners or people they were dating in 2019.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland