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Young have better understanding of sexual consent, research paper shows
Noeline Blackwell Pic: RollingNews.ie

22 Jun 2021 / courts Print

Young have better grasp of sexual consent, study shows

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) has said research by legal academic Dr Susan Leahy (UL) points clearly to the need for a dedicated reporting system on the totality of cases that would go beyond media headlines.

The research is based on the experience and views of legal practitioners and court accompaniment workers involved in rape trials and makes evidence-based recommendations for legal, procedural and policy reforms in how trials are run.

The research findings indicate that there is still much work to do to deliver best practice in the investigation, prosecution and trial of sexual offences, with issues such as delay, and a broad lack of understanding of sexual consent, impacting rape trials.

Legal reform 

Both lawyers and accompaniment workers felt that the wider social understanding of consent was central, and that the legal reform was only part of overall reform work needed.

Some accompaniment workers noted that younger people had a better understanding of consent, implying that education initiatives including media/social media campaigns on consent have an impact, and suggesting that awareness initiatives targeted at other age groups are required.

The paper suggests that reform is also needed in areas such as:

  • Legal advice and representation for complainants,
  • The focus on complainants’ other sexual experience,
  • The use of their counselling records and,
  • The level of knowledge that juries have on consent in rape trials.

Totality

Chief executive Noeline Blackwell said: “DRCC welcomes this research, which adds considerably to our understanding of the reality of sexual offence trials.

“It points clearly to the need for a dedicated reporting system, which would go beyond media and headline reports, but would report on the totality of cases.

“The report shows that reform of the system is urgent and essential if the rights of all those involved are to be recognised.”

Researcher Dr Susan Leahy said: “I am very grateful to the legal professionals and court accompaniment workers who gave their time to participate in this project. Their views offer an invaluable insight in to the practical operation of the laws and procedures relating to Irish rape trials.

“Developing our knowledge of how the current law is operating in practice is vital in order to understand whether recent reforms are achieving their intended objectives and to identify outstanding issues which need to be addressed within the system,” she said.

Participating legal professionals were recruited with the assistance of the Bar Council and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Court accompaniment workers were recruited with the help of Victim Support at Court and DRCC’s court accompaniment service.

Assumptions

Both groups acknowledged that ingrained/pre-existing biases, stereotypes and assumptions influence juries, whether conscious or unconscious.

These “rape myths” may be prevalent widely in society. In other jurisdictions, courts have introduced guidance to assist juries to overcome them. This guidance can also help to mitigate the sheer volume of information facing jurors in some trials.

The interviewees believed that applications to introduce sexual experience evidence were relatively rare, but concerns arose around whether complainants were adequately protected and represented during the trial process when such applications were made.

The researcher found evidence that many complainants waive objections to use of records for fear of causing further delay in proceedings; however, some legal professionals wondered why counselling records were singled out for use as opposed to other ‘personal records’.

Court accompaniment workers felt generally it was a traumatising, demoralising practice that breached confidentiality, and could prevent the survivor from being honest in therapy, thus affecting their recovery. 

Some felt that the prospect of notes being used might prevent victims from seeking counselling in the first place or, alternatively, stop them from reporting a crime, for fear their records might eventually be sought.

Familiarisation

Current provision of legal supports is generally limited to general information on the trial process, as well as a possible court-familiarisation visit.

Both groups of research participants tended not to favour separate legal representation for complainants beyond existing provision, as it would cause an imbalance in the bipartite system and complicate trials.

However, they did favour better, more independent legal advice and information for complainants, with clear guidelines on limits.

Court accompaniment workers, in particular, felt that such support should be available all throughout the trial process, using clear, relatable language.

Familiarisation is also seen as key for complainants.

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