Most sexual assault complainants do not receive any legal advice during the judicial process and are not aware their statement will be provided to the accused, a committee has heard.
The Justice Committee on Wednesday heard from Deputy Jim O’Callaghan (Fianna Fail), who is sponsoring a private member’s bill to support victims of sexual violence and proposes providing them with information and legal advice by a solicitor funded by the Department for Justice and Equality.
The committee heard from representatives of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland and the Law Society of Ireland, who said the country has low levels of reporting of sexual offences.
A total of 116 rape cases went to court in 2017 and many complainants of sexual assault say they did not realise at the outset the extent or nature of the process they were getting involved in.
We as legislators have a responsibility... to make it more comfortable for people who are the victims of sexual assaults to be able to come forwardJim O'Callaghan
“For instance, they were not aware of the fact that the statements that they provide to the Garda, or the statements of other people supporting them, will be provided to the accused, as they must be,” Mr O’Callaghan told the committee.
“They’re unaware of the fact that when it gets to court that the complainant will be required to give evidence.
“They are unaware of the fact that the complainant will require to be cross-examined by counsel representing the accused and they may be unaware of the extent to which their case can become an issue of public notoriety in the newspapers.”
It is estimated that only 15% of victims of sexual abuse make a complaint, and there is no funding for legal aid to help them make informed decisions from pre-complaint to the end of the judicial process, which the committee heard is “intimidating and gruelling” for victims.
Describing the bill, Mr O’Callaghan said: “In a way, it’s a hand-holding exercise to make them feel more comfortable when it comes to the process of making the complaint.
“Legislators have a responsibility to try to take legislative steps to improve those statistics and to make it more comfortable for people who are the victims of sexual assaults to be able to come forward and make complaints too.
“I think part of the reason is that very many victims of these offences find the criminal justice system twice as intimidating.
“I think we as legislators have a responsibility to try to take steps to improve those statistics and to make it more comfortable for people who are the victims of sexual assaults to be able to come forward.”
It was noted that the Government’s O’Malley Report, a review of the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences in Ireland, has not yet been produced, which could have aided and informed the committee.
Fianna Fail’s Jack Chambers said: “It’s regrettable that the department has missed another deadline, and it’s such an important area particularly around the politics of this, the fact that this Dail is inching towards its end, and I fear that this legislation at pre-legislative scrutiny will unfortunately lapse with this Dail.”
It was suggested that the legislation would need a blending of approaches and some models already exist in ad-hoc schemes that could be adapted, as well as amendments to legal aid laws.
The committee chairman, Sinn Fein’s Caoimhghin O Caolain, said the panel would prepare a report as quickly as possible, with the general election coming up in the new year.