Thursday, 2 March 2017
Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am pleased to speak on the long-awaited Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016. With many Bills coming through the Houses in recent times, I know it is not easy for Ministers. The victim must be at the centre of all programmes, whether they involve rehabilitation or restorative justice, because many victims have been sidelined.
Reference was made to the failure to reform the courts system when we got our country back from the British. The courts system is archaic and outdated. I was down at the courts on Tuesday morning. With respect to my learned colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, to see barristers and judges in their fine robes and head gear is intimidating. The Minister should visit the courts or send her officials down to them to listen to proceedings. I was in courtroom No. 6 and we could not hear what was being said because the court was packed, with people standing everywhere. The crowd thinned out a little later.
It was impossible to hear what was being said. Justice delayed is justice denied and justice unheard is not justice at all. It is difficult to hear what the learned men and women, the justices, the clerks and so on are saying. While these people do important work in terms of serving the justice system of the State, they are in a little bubble of their own. In saying that I am not being critical of judges, but of the audio system in the courts. It needs to be upgraded to the type of system we have in this House to allow what the judges and so on are saying to be heard. I recently accompanied people to the courts in respect of a civil case. We had to rely on the interpretation of lawyers in regard to what was happening because we could not hear what was said in the court. This is a problem in most courthouses, including in my area in Tipperary. There are also judges who speak in a low voice. I cannot say that is true of myself, or that I cannot be heard. There are people who speak so low one cannot understand what they are saying, particularly people who are nervous, frightened and apprehensive during an appearance before the court which might be their first experience in that regard. That needs to be looked at too.
The main purpose of the Bill is to transpose into Irish law an EU directive establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. The adage, prevention is better than cure, is true. We all learned that from parents and grandparents. I agree that the best thing we can do for victims of crime is prevent the reoccurrence of crime. In this regard, we need to put in place a sufficiently robust Garda Force that does not fall below the recommended minimum of 13,000. The lack of Garda visibility, vehicles and equipment has been a huge problem since the recession. Gardaí have been left high and dry. This time two years ago I met a garda in a Garda station shortly after a storm. He did not have a working mobile phone or a computer on which to access PULSE. When I met him again he told me that he went home early that day because owing to a lack of resources there was nothing for him to do in the station. Many rural Garda stations have been closed. Without the necessary and up to date equipment and tools of the trade, including access to PULSE, gardaí in the stations that remain open will not be able to do their job. Many Garda stations do not even have the facilities to make a cup of tea. The health and safety interests of An Garda Síochána are not being looked after.
The Department of Justice and Equality has outlined the main rights that will flow from this Bill. We have a lot of legislation in this area. I look forward to this Bill progressing through the Houses and to engaging further on it with the Minister on Committee Stage. We regularly pass legislation with great gusto only to find at a later date that it has not been enacted or implemented. There is a failure to get our house in order and our ducks in a row in terms of having legislation enacted and implemented. It has been mentioned by others that the legislative process is too slow and that is affecting the speedy enactment of legislation. It was suggested that following First Stage of a Bill some aspects of it could be implemented or that that idea at least be explored. I am a huge believer in restorative justice. The restorative justice programme in Nenagh, north Tipperary, which operated on a pilot basis, worked very well and it needs to be expanded.
The right to receive comprehensive information on the criminal justice system and the role of An Garda Síochána within it, and the range of services and entitlements victims may access following on from their first contact with the Garda Síochána is a huge grey area. This is particularly important in the case of people traumatised by a crime, particularly sexual or domestic crime. Often this will be their first contact with An Garda Síochána and they are out of chartered waters and they are devastated and feel violated by the crime committed, particularly if it occurred in the home. The first point of contact with the Garda Síochána will be very important for them. One can wait a long time in rural Ireland to meet a garda, particularly in a non-emergency situation. It is important that a victim is given the number and name of the garda handling a case and that he or she has an opportunity to build up a relationship with that garda. However, when it comes to further contact and feedback this is often very difficult because of rostering arrangements, particularly in rural areas, because gardaí are regularly deployed to urban centres to augment shortages there. This means that if a victim contacts a Garda station the garda on duty may not know the details of a situation and he or she either has to repeat them again or wait until another time to see the relevant garda. In this regard, a victim may often be told that the garda will be on duty on, say, Monday night at 8 p.m. but then a situation arises, for example, he or she is required to be in court or is attending an incident, and the victim has to call back another time. There is no joined up thinking or appreciation of the isolation and devastation caused to victims of crime when it comes to their dealings with the State. Their first engagement is often the most vital. How they are dealt with on that occasion will either put them off further engagement or assure them they are people who will defend and support them and deal sensitively with their issues. We also need balance in terms of male and female garda numbers, so that each can swap and take over from each other where the need arises.
I too recall the work of the late Derek Nally. While there are a number of listening and support services in place they are operating on a shoestring. Many of them are run by volunteers, who I acknowledge are trained volunteers and Garda vetted, which is very important. Above all, they are qualified to listen. They may not be qualified to take appropriate actions but they are qualified to refer people to the relevant professionals. As well all know, to be ag éisteacht - to listen, is very important. Many of the people I meet - I am sure the same applies to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and others - are often better for my having listened to their story. When people are listened to and engaged with they feel more confident and they often then do not need any further help. This type of support is very important, as is the support of An Garda Síochána. As I said many of these support services are voluntary, volunteer-led and they need to be properly resourced. These groups and organisations are not sufficiently supported or recognised for what they do. I acknowledge that in many cases they cannot be recognised because their services are anonymous. There is one such service in my own village in Tipperary which provides a listening ear for older people. It is an exemplary service. I salute the volunteers who provide that service on a weekly basis. They are very understanding. As I said, these services are held behind closed doors and the staff are sufficiently trained to refer people in need of care to the right professionals. They have a very good relationship with their clients and the groups to whom they refer them. We need more supports for these services.
Another issue addressed in this Bill is the right of receipt of a written acknowledgement of the making of a complaint by a victim. One would think there would be no requirement for this to be included in this legislation. It is vital that victims are provided with a written acknowledgement of their complaint. I have had experience in this regard. I once sought the assistance of a garda at a 24-hour Garda station. I was told I had not made contact with the station even though I had done so twice and that annoyed me. I sought my telephone records from Eircom at the time and they showed that I had not made any calls to the Garda station, including on the day I first made contact with the station. Despite that this was a 24-hour Garda station, the record showed no record of a call back from the station. This happened during a time when we did not have access to mobile phones and when calls were always made from a home telephone. The records showed no telephone calls to or from my house over three days. Thankfully, two or three days later, unsolicited, the proper records arrived. While most of the information was the same they also showed a list of calls made on the three days in question. As I said, the first set showed no record of any calls having been made on the days in question. There was fun and games going on. This is not the type of game that should be upheld by the justice system. It is obvious the records were inferred with. Thankfully, as I said, the second set of records proved that I had made telephone contact with the Garda station. We all know that calls to Garda stations are recorded and have been recorded for some decades now. This is done separate from the people on either end of the call.
The written acknowledgement is very important for a victim, even if it is only so he or she can keep it in their wallet, pocket and so on. It is evidence that he or she made a complaint. The victim also has a right to be provided with information concerning the progress of the investigation and any court proceedings.
As things stand, arrangements in this regard are abysmal. In saying that, I am not criticising the Garda Síochána but the system. The whole process takes far too long and one has no idea what needs to be sent to the DPP or when to send it. In my own case, 13 statements were provided but only five actually went to the DPP's office. The other eight, incidentally, were supporting my side of the argument. That is disgusting and it should not happen. Under the current system, victims have no idea what the DPP has received or not received and the whole process is conducted under a cloud of secrecy.
The Bill includes measures for ensuring victims are updated about court proceedings. I have already said that courtrooms should be made more comfortable and more receptive to the needs of people who are, for examples, victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Indeed, I have argued on previous occasions that the proceedings in such cases should be held in another location. That location should constitute a court of law, certainly, with full access for the media and the public, but the current environment is too formal and lends itself too easily to a situation where the victim of a crime may be intimidated by the perpetrator or persons associated with the perpetrator. The Bill will provide for the right of victims to be informed of any decision not to institute a prosecution in regard to an offence committed against them and the right to request a review of that decision. As it stands, people are not given any information on the progress of a complaint and have to telephone or write to the DPP's office or ask their solicitor to find out. Where a decision is taken not to prosecute, no explanation is given of the rationale for that decision and there is no opportunity for the victim to ask questions. He or she will not be told what information was sent, or not sent, by the Garda to the DPP's office, or which, if any, information was rejected. That is a huge grey area and this Bill goes some way to address it.
The right to receive information on the temporary release or escape from custody of an offender who is serving sentence for an offence committed against the victim is a very important right. In fact, it is bizarre that such information is not already provided as a matter of course. I have spoken to people who encountered on the street the person who perpetrated a crime against them. It was very traumatic for them. For too long the well-being and concerns of the victim, the person who was violated, have not been afforded sufficient attention. We must ensure the welfare of victims is placed front and centre of the proceedings.
The Bill includes a provision on the right of victims to receive information in clear and concise language and to have access to interpretation and translation services where such are necessary. This is vital to ensure victims understand what is happening and can make themselves understood in their dealings with the criminal justice process. Solicitors usually do their best for their clients but often use legal jargon which ordinary people do not understand. Information should not just be rattled off and the victim left to take it or leave it. It is important that people understand exactly what is happening when it comes to matters of such import to their lives and well-being.
The Bill further provides that each victim will be individually assessed so that any special measure necessary to protect him or her from secondary and repeat victimisation are implemented. I alluded to this already. There should be no opportunity for intimidation of the victim, subtle or otherwise. The growth of social media and advances in technology have brought many new ways of contacting people and invading their privacy. Special measures during investigations may include advice on personal safety, including safety orders and-or barring orders, applications to remand the alleged offender in custody or seek conditions on the granting of bail, and requests that interviews be carried out in appropriate premises by specially trained persons and, in the case of sexual or gender-based violence, by a person of the same sex as the victim. I mentioned already that we now have many excellent female officers in the Garda Síochána. These types of measures should be standard practice and we must work to develop the progress that has already been made.
Provision is made in the Bill for the extension of the right to give evidence by live television link or from behind a screen to all victims who would benefit from such measures. This is particularly welcome. We should not oblige victims to be in the same room or otherwise physically close to the perpetrator of a crime against them, particularly where that crime is an especially heinous one. We will have to wait for the enactment of the legislation but we must up our game in this regard in the meantime.
There is a need for a broader awareness by the State and its agencies of the needs of vulnerable persons, including refugees, victims of domestic violence and the elderly. We should bear in mind, for example, the needs of those refugees who will be coming to Ireland from Syria and elsewhere in the coming months and years. Local authorities are not training their staff to deal with people in those types of traumatic and devastating circumstances. They have neither the resources not the accommodation to cope with their needs. Cuan Saor in Clonmel is a women and children refuge centre which does Trojan work on a shoestring budget. It receives very little support from the State and is largely reliant on fund-raising by the public. The staff often have to take in women and children in the dead of night who have had to be removed from their homes by the Garda. My Vulnerable Persons Bill seeks specifically to protect older people from financial abuse. There is huge evidence of that type of thing going on, where vulnerable elderly people trust somebody, often a family member, to do their business transactions for them only to have that trust abused. The situation has got much worse since the onset of the recession. It is shocking that people who are seen as a soft touch are being abused in this way. Unfortunately, my Bill seems to be stuck at the bottom of the pile and I cannot get it progressed.
I very much welcome the provision in the Bill before us this afternoon to extend the right of victims to provide a victim impact statement. Other welcome measures are those which seek to ensure the particular vulnerability of child victims is recognised. Where a specific need to protect the victim is identified, the Bill provides that a court may exclude the public from proceedings and restrict questioning regarding the victim's private life. Family law cases are often held in camera, which is important, and these measures provide further protections for children and their families.
Overall, I welcome the Bill, but I want to know when it will be enacted once it has completed its passage through the Dáil and Seanad. We need to come into the 21st century in our dealings with victims of domestic violence and sexual offences, in particular, and take measures to manage the intrusiveness of the media. I conclude by highlighting that there is a problem with the holding of inquests, which is a matter for separate legislation. Inquests should be taken out of the courtroom setting completely, particularly in the case of the traumatised family of suicide victims. Some years ago a family I knew lost a young man who took his own life by going under a train. The train driver had to come in to the inquest to give his testimony and it was very traumatic for the young man's mother and other family members. The local media reported the proceedings line by line, with all the nitty-gritty, the awfulness of what happened and the devastating consequences. Those types of inquests should be conducted in hotels or other locations with a more comfortable ambience. The court setting is totally unsuitable. As I said, here should, in addition, be some restrictions on court reporting of such cases.
This Bill represents a welcome step towards finally transposing the victims directive into Irish law. Establishing minimum standards regarding the rights of victims and their entitlement to protection and support is an important element of the State's obligations to the victims of crime. I am grateful that several issues which were raised during the course of the debate on the sexual offences legislation have been provided for in this Bill.
The establishment of a communications and victim liaison unit within the DPP is a welcome development. There are several questions around the role of the DPP to which we do not receive satisfactory answers.
It is often impossible for victims and others to understand why the DPP's office has not proceeded with a prosecution. While recognising the clear need to ensure an obvious separation of powers, accountability is important and there is a concern about a lack of accountability on the part of the DPP.
When examining the details of the Grace case during the week, I noted that the Garda had carried out a number of investigations down the years. It referred cases to the DPP on five different occasions, but prosecution was not recommended any of those times. In light of what we know at this point, an explanation is needed and the question of whether there is a pattern or a reluctance to prosecute in particular cases needs to be researched. Without going into the detail of specific cases, some kind of explanation should be given where, for example, there have been shortcomings in the law or the preparation of cases. The public needs to know why, in what appears to be a large number of cases, the DPP does not recommend prosecutions. Glaringly, no action has been taken on some recommendations and reports from tribunals that have been referred to the DPP. This applies to the Garda as well. There is a lack of accountability. In the absence of any kind of explanation, even at a global level, one cannot help but wonder whether there is something wrong.
I welcome the proposal on a protective services bureau within the Garda. It represents the sort of victim-centric approach that is needed in our justice system. When I raised the matter of individual assessments with the Tánaiste last month, I was pleased to hear that the Garda had put in place the IT infrastructure to facilitate the bureau. All that we can do at this point is hope that the infrastructure is adequately resourced and proper training is provided. Creating the infrastructure is one thing, but ensuring that it is it widely available and officers are trained to operate it are critical factors. As with many aspects of the legislation, the actions are welcome but dependent on adequate resources being provided.
All too often, victims find themselves adrift in the unfamiliar waters of criminal proceedings or facing into undue bureaucracy. For this reason, any step that can be taken and any resource that can be put in place to mitigate against that would be welcome. However, transposition of the directive only represents the minimum protections required. The Bill can represent a significant opportunity for us to progress the area of victims' rights. In addition to passing the legislation, it is important that we avail of the opportunity to put victims front and centre in the response to crime. With that in mind, we should be ambitious and strive to achieve the greatest possible level of protection. I hope that the Tánaiste will be open to amendments that reflect some of the criticisms and strong points that have been made by groups, such as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, and Rape Crisis Network Ireland.
The victims' directive requires member states to ensure that access to victim support services is facilitated at the earliest point following a crime. This access is not dependent on a victim making a formal complaint or a formal investigation being launched. Victims are entitled to this status regardless of whether an offender is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and irrespective of the relationship between the offender and the victim. Other Deputies have referred to how there is sometimes a problem with a lack of protection for common law couples. It is certainly not the same type of protection that is provided to married couples.
The IHREC has recommended that the definition of "victim" used within the Bill be expanded to reflect this language. Doing so would place beyond doubt that, to be considered a victim, the offender does not need to be identified, apprehended or prosecuted. While victims should be encouraged and facilitated to make reports wherever possible, the reality is that many crimes go unreported. Given the evidence of this in terms of sexual and other serious crimes, steps must be taken to ensure that access to support services for victims is in place before a formal complaint is made.
Anecdotally, it would appear that such under-reporting is also highly prevalent in cases of hate crime. While the directive does not require specific hate crime legislation, the deficiencies in the reporting and prosecution of hate crime can make it difficult for victims to come forward and often leads to secondary victimisation. While the Bill acknowledges instances of crimes committed with a bias or discriminatory motive, it does not include specific protections for victims of hate crimes.
Section 16 will provide for the special measures that I mentioned to be placed on a statutory footing. However, will the Tánaiste outline why she chose to limit the application of these measures? Under the Bill's current wording, they "may" be implemented. Given that the Bill contains exemptions from providing for these measures in certain circumstances, would it not be more appropriate to state that these measures "shall be" provided where appropriate? The current wording is sufficiently qualified in terms of certain circumstances, so it would be preferable to use the term "shall be".
Under section 4(1), certain special measures will only be available to victims engaged in cases where criminal proceedings have commenced after the legislation comes into force. I understand that the trial judge may apply these measures to be implemented even when no individual assessment of the victim's specific protection needs has taken place. If so, then it seems unnecessary to limit who can access these measures based on the date criminal proceedings were instituted. I endorse Deputy Broughan's point about Ireland seemingly having a slow-moving justice system. In other jurisdictions, perpetrators of crime are made amenable more quickly. Given the implications of that for the victims and affected communities, it is difficult to understand why our system moves so slowly. For this reason, making it so that this legislation is only effective going forward would be a missed opportunity.
When an assessment takes place, there does not seem to be a requirement for it to be provided to the trial judge. Rape Crisis Network Ireland has suggested that there should be a specific obligation on the prosecutor to give the judge a copy of every report that comes into his or her possession.
While this may not require a statutory footing, those are the sort of administrative and operational aspects that are vital for the functioning of the directive. As recommended by the European Commission, it is crucial that the commencement of this legislation be accompanied by appropriate non-legislative measures, and a far wider public awareness of people's rights under this law. The victims' directive requires the establishment of processes to guarantee access by victims to information on their case. The process must be transparent and not overly bureaucratic. Under section 7 the onus is placed on the victim to make a request for information from the relevant body. However, depending on the stage of the matter, that could be the Garda, the DPP, GSOC, or a number of other agencies. In practice, that could lead to victims being passed from one agency to another, or facing an uphill battle against bureaucracy. For that reason, would the Minister consider establishing a central point of contact or single liaison for victims? Even if this was on a non-statutory basis, it would be a positive to streamline the
information request process wherever possible and could ensure that a minimum standard and timeframe of reply would be kept to following the request.
The list of information to which victims should have access should also be extended to include information on the bail conditions of the accused and the protections in place to protect victims from breaches of bail condition or intimidation. We have all come across situations where a victim has come forward to make a complaint or has reported a crime, very often putting himself of herself in considerable danger, and the expectation is that when proceedings start it will only be a matter of time before the perpetrator is brought to book, yet he or she can go outside and see the perpetrator walking around the neighbourhood or, worse, approaching the house or engaging in practices that are very intimidating. That is hugely disturbing and worrying for the victim concerned. For that reason there must be a much greater level of information exchange and the victim must be informed of the conditions of bail.
On that front also an issue arises in this country in terms of anti-social behaviour, some of which can be of a most serious nature. We are all familiar with it as it happens in many housing estates. Such a crime is extremely difficult to address adequately. Inherent in anti-social behaviour and crime is intimidation and threatening behaviour, in particular the threat of violence against an individual or his or her child. When attempts are made to deal with that at community level, the Garda tells people they must come forward and give evidence. People take huge risks in coming forward to give evidence and report crimes. In spite of the Garda being aware of it and the possibility that several charges have been made against a perpetrator, and a strong awareness locally of the threatening activity of the perpetrator, decisions are taken at court level in terms of granting bail. That is a significant disincentive for victims of serious anti-social activity to come forward. It is a huge disincentive and discouragement to residents' groups who are trying to work with the Garda and local authorities to tackle serious anti-social behaviour, and an enormous disincentive to people to take that courageous step and report a crime. There is a real issue about the need to inform and train judges and the legal profession generally in terms of the impact of some elements of community crime on vulnerable communities and individuals. On a regular basis there is evidence of a complete lack of appreciation of what it means to release somebody on bail into the community the person has been targeting and in many ways devastating over a long period. There is a lack of appreciation of that on the part of the Judiciary in particular and that is an issue that must be addressed.
Fundamentally, we must ensure that a minimum standard of support and uniformity of treatment is in place for all victims. The current wording of the Bill does not specify the importance of referrals to services which are suitable for the victim's specific characteristics and situation. The Rape Crisis Network has recommended that the Bill be amended to reflect more closely the wording of the directive. Doing so would address the concern that rural dwellers will be disadvantaged due to the limited catchment areas of some of the voluntary agencies that support the provision of victims' services throughout the country. That, again, raises the question of resources. When it comes to support services and many social services there is a geographic lottery and for that reason it would be very helpful if there was a centralised approach in terms of referral and then access to regionalised support services. Such support services and social services generally must be adequately resourced. One can have all the legislation one likes but if the support services are not in place then people will simply not come forward and in many ways they will continue to suffer in silence. While the legislation is welcome it is only as good as the funding and support services that are provided in order to underpin it.
The Bill is most welcome. The points I have raised on the operation of the Bill, per se, are technical points. The goal of the Bill and many of its provisions are to be warmly welcomed. It has the potential to have a significant impact on the lives of victims and how they experience the criminal justice system. However, it is important that we get it right and ensure the strongest possible model is commenced. In that regard I trust the Minister will be open to amendments from this side of the House on Committee Stage.
I very much welcome this legislation. There have been some positive developments in the area of victims of crime in recent years such as the establishment of the Victims of Crime Office, which was set up in 2008, and the development of a victims charter. However, the developments are not legislatively based and are therefore less effective in protecting victims. As Maria McDonald of the Victims' Rights Alliance stated:
For the first time victims will have rights and for the first time they will be able to go to court to protect those rights. We've had a victim's charter in this country since 2010 but it has no legal force. This has legal force.
I would like to raise one issue that has also been raised by other Members. The impact analysis indicates that this legislation has no additional cost to the Exchequer. While that may be true on the face of it, I wonder whether sufficient consideration has been given to the additional cost of training staff in many State agencies such as the Garda and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. If victims are to be supported as they should be they will need proper advice, referral and support. To do that in an efficient and effective manner staff working in the State agencies involved will have to have sufficiently trained. I know the Minister is cognisant of that and has increased funding to both the Victims of Crime Office and Cosc. I would just request that this issue be kept under review to ensure that we have sufficient resources to effectively implement the spirit and letter of this legislation. The legislation is a very positive step forward for victims of crime in this jurisdiction and I very much welcome it.
For far too long in this country the victims of crime have been ignored and they certainly have not been supported appropriately.
Crime has many victims and causes huge psychological and emotional trauma and anguish, as well as the other more obvious physical, and in many cases, financial effects. Victims have to go to court to bear witness to look for justice not just for themselves but for the community in which they live. They then become witnesses, often feel that they are the ones on trial during cross examination and have to relive their difficult and often traumatic experiences. Our victims deserve and need support, dignity and appropriate protection. This is especially true for victims of sensitive crimes such as rape and domestic violence as well as children themselves.
This Bill introduces for the first time statutory rights for victims of crime. Those three essential rights are the right to information, the right to protection and the right to support. One of the interesting features of the Bill relates to a visit I paid not too long ago to Dolphin House where I saw the archaic situation facing services relating to our family courts in Dublin. One of the things that struck me was the lack of privacy for victims and the fact that they were in the same small packed space in halls as those accused of perpetrating crimes against them. I found this quite appalling. I can only imagine the difficulty this visited on those people who were, in the main, women. I am glad to see the provision that there must be a separate waiting area for victims as opposed to those accused of crime.
I compliment on Rape Crisis Network Ireland on its comprehensive submission, which contained many recommendations. In particular, the recommendation that there be a victim ombudsman certainly has merit. There is also a lot of merit in the 14th recommendation, which involves having pre-recorded submissions in certain instances.
The State and all of us must encourage everybody who is a victim of crime to report it. It is sometimes not a very easy thing to do but there is an onus on every victim to do that because that supports other potential victims down the line. It is certainly not easy for people to waive their anonymity but I applaud those who do so to help others. The case of Anna Ilnicka is one we have all read about. The letter she wrote to Members of the Dáil described in harrowing detail how victims of crime can be utterly failed by the health and justice systems in this country. Anna wants and deserves an inquiry into the events surrounding how she was treated by State agencies following the brutal physical and sexual assault she experienced in 2006. There was no sexual assault examination despite the recording of an allegation of sexual assault in hospital. No interpreter was provided to take her statement nor was one provided later when the accused was in court on the assault charge. No effort was made to keep her informed about the progress of the case. The DPP decided that no prosecution would take place. In her case, she alleges negligence and reckless disregard of basic requirements in dealing with her complaints of rape and sexual and physical assault. This vulnerable woman was failed at every turn and her case raises serious issues about how we treat the victims of crime.
The State has already missed a November 2015 deadline to put into law the European Union's victims' directive, which sets out the minimum standards of protection a victim of crime should receive so this Bill urgently needs to be discussed and improved to ensure no more victims of crime endure this type of treatment by the State. It is important that a victim should not be treated by the courts as just another witness. A victim should receive support and protection to enable them to participate in legal proceedings without feeling further victimised by the system. Victims of crime deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, to be provided with information about the progress of any investigation or court proceedings and to be able to avail of interpretation services when they need them. Two of the most important rights this Bill gives victims is the right to be informed about any decision not to institute a prosecution of the offence and the right to request a review.
We discussed this Bill during a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality this week. It is blatantly obvious that this is a massive area with so much at play. There are so many issues to deal with. I looked at the comments from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. The commission said that services to victims should not be dependent on the victim making a formal complaint or an offender being prosecuted or convicted. The commission reported that there were 4,831 un-met requests for emergency accommodation for victims in 2016 alone. There is one women's refuge in Wexford with four family bedrooms serving a population of 150,000. The refuge receives on a regular basis women presenting with serious physical injuries resulting from assault along with traumatised children. In 2014, the Wexford refuge turned away 338 women and 259 children. In 2016, it accommodated 35 women and 45 children but turned away 244 women and 353 children. The vast majority of women who contact the women's refuge in Wexford are victims of domestic violence. In other words, they are victims of a crime but support services receive nothing in the way of State support. As the figures show, this refuge is only able to deal with a fraction of the demand placed upon it by the most vulnerable in our society. I have no doubt that it is not just a problem in Wexford. When Wexford Women's Refuge submitted for a second time a comprehensive funding application through the capital assistance scheme to buy a property that would be converted into a facility with 12 self-contained rooms, the application disappeared - vanished off the face of the planet. That is over a year ago and the refuge's application is still in a state of paralysis. That will give you some indication of what we really think of victims of crime in this country.
Another major issue is faced by victims of domestic violence, namely, the interpretation of what constitutes a victim of any crime. The Bill states that a victim is a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence. In respect of harm being directly caused by a criminal offence, is an offence simply the reporting of a crime, does a charge have to be brought in respect of the reporting of a crime or does there have be a conviction in respect of the reporting of a crime? I can understand that it is very hard for the State to record a crime if it is never reported. We have a big challenge then. We need to improve the level of reporting of crime. If you never hear about it, you certainly do not know it happened unless the entire country is bugged.
Looking at some of the statistics, according to the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, less than 25% of women who suffer severely physically abuse report the incident to An Garda Síochána. Twenty-nine per cent of women who have suffered domestic abuse in some form or other report the incident to the Garda. A Cosc study shows 213,000 women have been the victims of domestic abuse in Ireland alone but, based on its own figures, 150,000 of these women did not report the incident to the Garda. These 150,000 women are still victims of crime but, because they did not report the offence to the Garda, they will not be entitled to the supports, services and protection that goes with being a victim. That is 150,000 victims who are not victims. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has recommended expanding the definition of "victim" to ensure that a person may be considered a victim regardless of whether an offender is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted, and that makes sense.
We need to encourage more victims, especially those vulnerable to the risk of repeat and secondary victimisation, to report the crime to the Garda but in order to do so, we also need to build trust in the Garda and transparency in how it operates. The Garda Inspectorate's report showed a massaging downwards of crime figures and a massaging upwards of detection rates. The Garda Commissioner rejected this assertion but it must be wondered how she got away with rejecting the Garda Inspectorate report. The massaging of figures was reconfirmed by both GSOC and the CSO in their respective 2014 reports. The CSO went so far as to suspend publishing of crime statistics for a full year because of the unreliability of the figures. That Commissioner is still in place. Sadly, too many Members in here still seem to think that she is fit for office.
The conclusions of the O'Higgins report reconfirmed serious issues detailed in the Garda Inspectorate report of 2015. These issues include poor investigation techniques and detection rates, the absence of proper record or note taking, the absence of proper supervision and training, the appalling treatment of victims of crime, and the massaging of figures and PULSE records by gardaí. I am painting a sad picture but I am not making it up. It is a difficult situation for so many people. I am sorry, but we will not get people coming forward in a positive healthy fashion without reservation until we have total confidence in the police force. The present Commissioner was prepared at the O'Higgins commission to send her legal team back in with false statements about Sergeant Maurice McCabe with regard to a meeting in Mullingar and was prepared to stand over it. According to the O'Higgins report, this was done in a fairly blatant manner. How, in God's name, will we expect people to come forward in trust with a police force that operates in the manner it does?
Sometimes we expect too much of the police force in general. I like to think that the majority of Members disagreed with closing so many local Garda stations, but I remember when there was a garda in the nearest village to me at home and everyone in the place knew him. If one was robbed, one went to him because we trusted him and we had faith in him. We expected to be served well by him, and we were. It made such a difference knowing the garda. He was part of the community and reporting a crime to him would be as natural as day. Domestic violence is clearly a different area and there were always challenges there. As a State, we have serious problems around openness in many matters around that but the disappearance of the local garda and the local Garda station has not helped. I wish this Government or the next would rethink it. While in the case of some stations it did not make any sense to have them open because there was not enough going on, there are many stations that should be open but which have been closed.
If we are to introduce better measures in this area of helping the victims of crime, we will have to provide more resources to the Garda as well. It is not only about IT. There are extra resources going to them at present but these are generally IT-based. More needs to be done. There are a lot of gardaí interested in doing their job properly irrespective of the fact that the hierarchy is rotten. There are many good gardaí in this country and they are not being well served by the system. They will need more resources if we are to have the sort of police service that we would like.
The fact that we have the Bill is welcome, as are many of its provisions, but in the limited time available I will concentrate on the number of significant omissions and gaps in the Bill, which is supposed to transpose the Victims Directive into Irish law but excludes some of its most crucial ingredients. Other Members have made points around the issue of special measures for victims, the issue of restorative justice, the definition of a victim of crime and complaints by victims. The Bill is lacking on all of those fronts in that it does not fully transpose the directive and leaves us open to infringement proceedings by the EU Commission.
Yesterday we were privileged to have an excellent presentation at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality by Ms Maria McDonald of the Victims Rights Alliance. Ms McDonald cited the shocking figure that 72% of the victims of crime feel re-victimised by the criminal justice system. It is particularly shocking when compared to the fact that 49% of them feel re-victimised by the accused. Therefore, victims are more oppressed by the State and its criminal justice system than the offender. We have seen countless examples of the harm being done to victims of crime in the litany of reports, such as Guerin, O'Higgins, the 2014 Garda Inspectorate report and the Victims Rights Alliance report on the implementation and enforcement of the directive. All of them categorically state the wrongs done to victims, particularly around issues such as the failure by gardaí to record crimes, the failure to provide information to victims, and cases of victims finding out about the outcome of a case involving them, either through the media or through the grapevine. They show the appalling treatment of those who have already been victimised.
The O'Higgins report was stark about victims being let down by the Garda. It is interesting that the Minister, at the time of its publication, referred to the findings being unacceptable as it was disheartening and that those concerned must take all measures open to them to ensure that these shortcomings are not repeated. However, they are being repeated. We would all be naive to think that the necessary reform outlined in the report has been delivered because it has not. I raised earlier, at Leaders' Questions, a number of the cases of those who have been the victims of appalling crime and have been re-victimised by the treatment they got when they turned to the Garda to get help in having those crimes investigated. If we do not deal with the issue of the urgent need for Garda reform we will not get the appropriate treatment for victims that they deserve.
In terms of the Bill's provisions the issue around not including restorative justice, from the point of view that the victims should be informed on first contact with the Garda of the available restorative justice services, should be addressed. Article 12 of the directive provides that where restorative justice services are available safeguards must be put in place to protect against repeat victimisation to ensure that victims have access to safe and competent restorative justice systems and to ensure that they are put forward in the best interests of the victim. All of this should have been provided for in the Bill because this is a most important provision, not only in terms of empowering the victim to confront his or her perpetrator in the appropriate surroundings but because it can have a profound effect on the offender as well in making that person understand the damage of the offence that he or she has caused.
If we get that right and implement it properly we will have fewer victims, which is the point we want to reach.
The point made that these services are not available on a nationwide or on a statutory basis is not a good enough excuse because we know that members of the Judiciary have put forward recommendations. In fairness, a very unsuitable one was cited at the justice committee yesterday where a judge asked a victim in a child sex abuse case to engage in the restorative justice system with the perpetrator who had not accepted the facts of the case, rejected the guilty verdict and clearly was somebody who had not acknowledged the damage he had done. Asking the victim to engage in that process was incredibly wrong, inappropriate and harmful. That is not the goal of restorative justice. The way the process is set up is very important but we need to put more resources into that.
The other area is the problematic definition of the victim that has been highlighted by other Deputies. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has made the point that the Bill should be amended to broaden the definition of a victim. We agree with that. Doing so would ensure that the services for victims provided for in it would not be dependent on the victim making a formal complaint or an offender being prosecuted or convicted. This is in line with the victims directive, which requires states to ensure that access to support services is facilitated at the earliest point following a crime and that access is not dependent on a formal complaint. The tight definition in this Bill is a significant failing which will have to be addressed at a later stage.
That is particularly pertinent in the area of domestic violence. We know from the 2014 Garda Inspectorate report the litany of the manner in which victims had been treated. They include gardaí being called out and saying, "There's two of them in it" or "Just don't annoy him and he will not come back". A really shocking example was where gardaí answered an emergency call to a home where a woman was being threatened by her husband and one of the gardaí said to the woman, "We've enough to be doing. The next time we won't call back". Later that day, the husband returned home, stabbed his wife in front of their child who was also injured protecting his mother. Both victims were taken to hospital, and it took three days to get a statement from that woman. Broadening this Bill to take in victims like that woman and her child would have a profound effect on gardaí in cases like hers. It would highlight and intensify their obligations and would work to ensure that such catastrophic errors would not be repeated. It is vitally important that we would examine that. We know that victims of domestic and sexual violence in particular are very hesitant to make a complaint. The inspectorate, in its many reports, provided several examples of where an investigating garda was directed by a district officer to put pressure on victims to make up their minds about whether they wanted to make a complaint, which is inappropriate. If victims had access to support and services to protect them, that would protect them from pressure from gardaí and would support them in their decision as to whether they wanted to complain formally. The victims directive refers to indirect victims of crime, for example, children who witness domestic violence. They should have the same access to support services.
On the other areas, Garda training and increased funding is absolutely necessary if it is to be meaningful. More funding and more resources are necessary. The evidence given yesterday at the committee was that clicking on the link of the victims support services on the Garda website brings one to a defunct commission of victims of crime service. That is wholly unacceptable in this day and age. We know that 64% of victims said they were not informed by the gardaí about victim support services, therefore the issue of resourcing must be addressed.
The area of training for the Judiciary is critical. Article 25 of the directive provides that officials likely to come into contact with victims should get specialist and general training appropriate to their level of contact with victims of crime to enable them to deal with the situation appropriately. I am aware there are plans to develop training for lawyers and so on but that must be extended to the Judiciary itself.
The other gap is section 16, which deals with special measures for very vulnerable victims. The section states that these may be used but the directive states that they shall be used. These supports include a victim to be interviewed by someone of the same sex in a sexual violence case and so on. There are many good reasons those should be mandatory and limited only by overall considerations.
The final point is to support the call made by the Rape Crisis Network and the Victims' Rights Alliance for the establishment of a victims ombudsman as a central point of contact for dealing with complaints. As it stands, the Bill provides for information to be given on how to complain to the Garda, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, but those organisations would not be fit for purpose in this regard and an Ombudsman office would be far preferable.
I listened with interest to what Deputies had to say about the Bill over the past two hours. I thank everyone who contributed to the debate and I am pleased to see the Bill has wide support.
I will respond briefly to a few of the issues raised by Deputies this afternoon but I know the Tánaiste is open to proposals which will improve the Bill and the rights and protections for victims where it is possible. All of the points raised in the debate will be considered.
On the definition of "victim", some suggestions were made by Deputies in the debate, and in submissions to the Tánaiste on the Bill, that the definition of "victim" should be expanded, clarified or qualified in various ways to ensure that victims can avail of the rights under the Bill without a specific offence or offender being identified. The definition of “victim” is the cornerstone of this Bill and of the EU directive and was very carefully considered in the context of both.
A wide range of rights flow from the definition. These include rights arising before a formal complaint has been made, during a trial and after an offender has been convicted. The decision was made to include in the Bill a single broad and inclusive definition of "victim" mirroring that in the directive to ensure it is appropriate to every circumstance. Deputies will note that individual sections of the Bill make clear that the victim’s rights arise as soon as they make contact about an alleged offence and no proof of harm is required. This approach also ensures that the Bill will be interpreted in line with the directive now and in light of any future rulings of the European Court of Justice.
Restorative justice was mentioned by Deputies and concerns were raised about the omission of restorative justice provisions in the Bill as published. I can assure Deputies that the Tánaiste and I intend to make provision for the rights of victims who participate in restorative justice practices in this Bill. Some legal issues have arisen around the most appropriate text for the provision, given the non-statutory nature of restorative justice practices available. The issue is being considered, in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and appropriate amendments will be brought forward during the progress of the Bill. I thank Deputies for raising concerns about it.
It is something of a new departure for our criminal law to focus on the needs of the victims of crime, but it is not unique. As the Tánaiste noted yesterday, the Bill marks the single biggest step towards providing statutory rights to victims but there is a range of other legislative measures which will also enhance victims’ rights. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, enacted earlier this month, provides additional protections for victims of sexual violence and the Domestic Violence Bill 2017, which commenced in the Seanad yesterday, provides for a range of additional supports and protections for victims of domestic violence.
This Bill will provide victims of crime with information and support to help them through what is inevitably a very difficult time. As colleagues here have recognised, it is an important step forward in supporting victims of crime and protecting victims, in so far as possible, from further victimisation. I urge Deputies to support the Bill's passage through the House and on Committee Stage.
Another point was raised in the debate about implementation. A consultation group that was put together has been working very closely with the Tánaiste on this issue and that group will continue to work throughout the implementation process. I commend the Bill to the House.