Thursday, 2 March 2017
Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
The Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016 is to be welcomed because it marks a shift in culture in our legal system. Ireland has a very adversarial system where the focus is on the prosecution and defence of the accused. Victims have often been considered as merely witnesses to a crime and not victims who are also witnesses. The experience they face by reporting crimes and being witnesses in court has not been a major consideration of the legal system in the past. There are welcome changes in the Bill. Victims, for example, will now be given information on first contact with the authorities, they will have a right to information on why a prosecution was not advanced by the Director of Public Prosecutions or the gardaí. We saw this issue arising in, for example, the O'Higgins commission in respect of the way some of the victims were treated in those case studies in the Cavan - Monaghan district. They were kept completely out of the loop as to what was going on. In one case the woman's husband received a phone call when she herself did not. I think it is absolutely critical that is done.
The Bill also provides for protection measures, if required, to protect victims when an alleged offence is being investigated. There will be victim personal statements, which can be considered by a judge at sentencing. Victims can be also accompanied by another person, including a legal representative or somebody else, at an interview. This will be of major practical assistance to victims coming forward when reporting a crime is difficult for them. There also will be changes to court procedure such as giving evidence by video link or exclusion of the public during sensitive evidence. Victims will also have access to interpretation and translation as a right, which is very important giving the growing diversity of population we have. In our courts there are also meant to be separate waiting areas for victims. This is recognised in the Bill.
The Victims' Rights Alliance conducted a survey. It showed that 72% of victims feel re-victimised by the justice system. Many are unwilling to come forward due to the traumatic experience they feel they have had to relive. It is essential that the gardaí and the courts are able to minimise the difficulties that victims face when coming forward to report a crime. The area of intimate partner violence is one that requires particular attention in the debate we will have on this Bill. We know that in most incidents of serious physical and sexual violence from a partner the victim does not come forward and the crime is never reported. Most victims do not prosecute the crime.
For example, Safe Ireland told the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality during pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill that 79%, an incredibly high figure, do not tell anybody else about a serious physical or sexual violence when it is carried out by a partner. One in three women experience serious psychological violence from a partner, which is 500,000 women in Ireland according to the Safe Ireland report. The SAVI report showed that 10% of women and 3% of men have been victims of rape.
According to the Rotunda Hospital, one in eight pregnant women face abuse and 25% of all violent crime involves men attacking a partner. One in seven women and one in 17 men face domestic abuse. Women are seven times more likely to be the victims of sexual violence. This statistics show that in Irish society, as is the case in other countries, sexist and misogynistic attitudes exist which lead to serious crime, but also that there are flaws in the legal system.
The prevalence of intimate partner violence is not reflected in prosecutions in court. Many of the provisions of the Bill will, therefore, be welcome for the victims of domestic violence. The welcome provisions include the ability to have a person accompanying one during the reporting process, the ability to give evidence by video link and the ability of the court to have members of the public step out when sensitive evidence has been given. There is a need for other changes in the law to assist victims, such as greater access to emergency barring orders which cannot be granted outside of court sitting times. Violence does not take place solely during court sitting times, and a facility must be set up to deal with that fact.
Women's Aid has demanded that barring orders be accessible to non-married and non-cohabiting couples. Violence is carried out by boyfriends, girlfriends or past partners, but a barring order cannot be granted unless people are in married or cohabiting relationships which is a serious flaw in the legislation.
Section 20 makes some provision for a restriction on asking questions in court about a victim's private life, an important provision that requires particular attention. We have a victim blaming culture in our society, whereby victims of sexual assault, in particular, are questioned about what they were wearing and where they were, and judged as to whether they led a person on. We should be very clear that the cause of rape and sexual assault are rapists and not their victims. This matter deserves more attention when we are drafting amendments.
The right of an accused person to have people giving evidence in a trial be cross-examined is another area that needs to be examined. The Victims' Rights Alliance made the point to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality that an accused person does not have an unlimited right to cross-examine a witness and that the rights of victims also have to be considered. Somebody has to be able to put up a defence and have a witness cross-examined, but not on irrelevant information such as previous sexual partners or personal life, neither of which should have any bearing on a legal case. I would like section 20 to be considered by the Select Committee on Justice and Equality on Committee Stage to make sure the defence no longer has the right or ability to cross-examine a witness on his or her private life.
In the sexual offences Bill that has been passed by both Houses, a definition of consent was included which was very important. There is a need to increase awareness of sexual consent and tackle any backwards views that exist in society around us. Legislation on its own is pointless and ineffective unless it is backed up with resources. There has to be a discussion on how we can give victims much more ability to prosecute and have a better life in general.
The experience of victims is not just about legal rights and procedures with the Garda or the courts, important as they are. It also happens in the context of resources being made available. Domestic violence is a recurrent reason for women in my constituency contacting me about housing problems. Those facing violence in the home are unable to leave due to the serious housing crisis. Rents are too high and it is impossible for a single person to rent a home, in particular if that person has children and is unable to work full-time.
Council waiting lists are very long and it is not possible for a person leaving an abusive partner to secure a home through his or her local authority. In 2015, 5,917 people were turned away from women's refuges, a rise of over 1,000 on the previous year. Every day 16 women are unable to access refuges. There is a 20-week waiting list for a hearing for a safety order, and something has to be done to tackle that. Free legal aid fees rose from €50 to €130, which is a serious deterrent for the poorest in our society being able to get proper legal advice regarding their situation.
There is a shocking lack of support services for child victims in this country. The ISPCC outlined that it provides therapeutic services to 500 children. However, waiting times for child psychologists are at least six months to a year. When a child is in distress that is simply unacceptable. The Children's Rights Alliance told the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality that there is no free counselling for child victims in murder cases, for example. Children At Risk in Ireland, CARI, outlined that there are long waiting list for child victims of sexual abuse. Those aged under 14 years only have one State service, based in Galway. Services offers to those aged over 14 depend on geography and where the victim lives. Like any legal reform, there is a need for resources to back up to make these legal reforms more than just an abstract change which produces nothing in reality.
I am concerned that the requirement in the directive that people who have contact with victims receive training is not included in the Bill. It is a serious problem if the first contact with the Garda, the Judiciary or other services involves people who have not been trained properly. We have all heard anecdotal evidence from people with whom we deal who are unhappy with the manner of their first and other encounters. We have an opportunity to underpin training requirements in the Bill, something that the Minister should consider.