Thursday, 2 March 2017
Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the introduction of this Bill. As the Minister of State is aware, we have an obligation to transpose the victims directive into law and in order to do that we will be introducing three items of legislative, one of which is before the House now. Legislation on domestic violence currently before the Seanad is relevant to this also and, in time, that Bill will be dealt with in this House.
The deadline for the transposition of the victims directive was November 2015. While we have not managed to transpose it yet, it is fair to say that a number of steps have been taken in preparation for that, some of which I will outline. We had the directive by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to establish a new communications and victim liaison unit and to implement rights under the victims directive pending the transposition of the directive into Irish law. We also had the establishment of the protective services bureau and the Garda victims services office. We are very quick in opposition to highlight cuts to services so it is important to put on the record that this area has seen increased funding allocated by the Victims of Crime Office to victims support services. We have also seen training and other initiatives being undertaken in preparation for the transposition of this directive into Irish law.
On the issue of training, new recruits in Templemore are required to take a module in training on empathy.
If they fail this, they are not allowed to pass out and they must do this module again. One question to which I have not been able to get an answer, and perhaps the Minister of State can come back to me later today or whenever he can get the answer, is whether this module is being rolled out throughout the force. I know it is being implemented for new recruits, but we have serving members of An Garda Síochána who have been there for a number of years. When they did their training in Templemore, the issue of victims' rights may not have been as important or prevalent as it is today. I do not know how much training has been undertaken by officers who have been there for many years in preparation for the directive being transposed. Perhaps this is something we can look at. I know it is an operational issue for An Garda Síochána.
I have an excellent paper produced by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, which I read last night. It highlights some of the potential - I will not stay flaws - inadequacies of the Bill which, in its opinion, need to be addressed as the legislation progresses through the House to ensure the directive is transposed correctly into Irish law. I will touch on a number of points raised.
Section 2 of the Bill includes the definition of the victim, and Deputy O'Callaghan raised an issue in this regard yesterday. The definition as proposed in the Bill is "a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss, which was directly caused by an offence". Section 2 also states the term extends to a family member where the death of a victim is caused directly by an offence. While we all welcome the definition, we need to be very careful it is not too restrictive. Recital 19 of the directive states a victim should enjoy that status regardless of whether an offender is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and regardless of the relationship between the offender and the victim. The IHREC states that to ensure the directive is transposed correctly, we should look at expanding the definition of a victim to ensure there is no doubt an individual may be considered a victim regardless of whether an offender has been identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and regardless of the relationship between the offender and the victim. This is something we need to look at on Committee Stage.
The commission also discusses section 14(2)(d) of the Bill, which lists the personal characteristics of the victim which must be taken into account at the time of the assessment. The IHREC welcomes this approach but it makes some observations on section 14(2)(e) of the Bill, which relates to instances where a crime appears to have been committed with a bias or discriminatory motive. Section 14(2)(e) directly cross-references the list of personal characteristics set out in section 14(2)(d). The IHREC recommends, and asks us as law-makers to examine, an amendment to section 14(2)(e) to clarify the basis of hate crime is not limited to the personal characteristics listed in section 14(2)(d) and may also include other characteristics.
The next section highlighted by the IHREC is section 16, which outlines the special measures which must be implemented in respect of a victim during interviews in the course of an investigation. The section includes provisions to ensure interviews are carried out in suitable premises by persons specially trained for the purposes. In the case of multiple interviews the section states the same officer should carry out the interviews where possible.
In cases of sexual violence, gender-based violence or violence in a close relationship, that is domestic violence, it should be a right for the victim to be interviewed by a person of the same sex as the victim. While the Bill appears to transpose the directive's strict requirements in this regard, it states that such special measures may be implemented in respect of a victim. This should be amended, and "may" should be replaced with "shall" to remove any doubt.
The report also discuss restorative justice. When the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality held its prelegislative scrutiny of the Bill, it contained a section on restorative justice but it has been dropped from the published Bill. I am not sure why this has happened and I ask for clarification from the Minister. Restorative justice is a very important part of the process for victims. Victims want to know why somebody committed a crime against them but questions such as this cannot be addressed through the criminal justice system. We identify offenders, we apprehend them, we prosecute them and, if convicted, send them to jail or impose another penalty. That is often not enough for victims as they want to know why they were victims of a crime and that can be very difficult, especially in cases of sexual violence. They want to know whether they were targeted, if they were being followed by somebody or whether somebody was watching their home before burgling it but these questions are not answered in the course of a criminal investigation. This is where restorative justice comes in. Restorative justice exists within the State but not on a statutory footing and we should look at it. Various models of restorative justice are used throughout the world and research suggests it is very successful. There is research that suggests that, in certain types of offences, restorative justice is not successful, one being sexual and domestic violence, but restorative justice increases the rights of, and answers at least some questions for, victims of all other offences. It is important to address this on Committee Stage. If it was important enough to have a section at the time of prelegislative scrutiny, I am not sure why it has been dropped from the Bill.
In recent years there have been positive developments in victim-sensitive processes in the criminal justice area and this legislation will enhance that. Despite this, however, significant challenges remain, some relating to the under-reporting of crimes and we need to address this. Unfortunately, all the figures show that there is under-reporting of crime, particularly in cases of hate crime. There may be many reasons for this, one of which is the fact that we do not have specific legislation on hate crime. We have to address that and I know the Minister has said she will bring forward something on this issue in due course. One reason given for the under-reporting of hate crime is the perception that the offender will not be detected or the victim may not be believed. We should do everything to encourage victims of crime to report the crime because that is how we can deal with victims' rights and how we can support them. We will also be able to get data on the people engaged in hate crime or domestic violence, where there are also difficulties in reporting for many reasons such as fear, intimidation, uncertainty, the unknown and a feeling they may not be believed in situations where it is their word against that of the perpetrator. It is difficult to say how many cases of hate crime there have been because of its significant under-reporting.
Another area we will address on Committee Stage is the case for a central point of contact for victims and for continuity of support for a person who reports a crime so that, for example, a liaison officer assigned to a victim remains the same throughout the process. This goes beyond the sentencing of an offender. Under the directive, victims will also have rights to information on release dates and on whether somebody has escaped from prison and these things are addressed in the Bill. However, expanding the definition of a victim and restorative justice are issues for us. The latter has an important role in the transposition of the directive into Irish law and I would like it to be addressed on Committee Stage. We will support the legislation, however, and look forward to its passage.
It is important to pass legislation but it is also important to ensure the resources and the necessary supports are put in place afterwards. We could formulate an implementation plan, which is not catered for in the legislation at the moment. Given the fact that we are so far behind schedule in transposing the directive into law, and that a number of initiatives have been taken in the lead-up to the legislation, it is important the process is monitored in the interests of victims and an implementation plan will enable us to do that.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy David Stanton, to the debate. It will not have the same applause and attention as the announcement last night and I congratulate the Minister of State on that initiative, which was very important.
This legislation is important too. The Bill is welcome but it is belated.
It originates in the EU directive that dates back to October 2012. All member states were required to transpose the victims' directive into law by 16 November 2015. As of December last, infringement proceedings had been brought against 11 member states, including Ireland, for failure to communicate on their implementation of the directive.
I do not blame the Minister for Justice and Equality or, indeed, her Department. Every Minister for Justice produces a considerable portion of legislation and, indeed, a significant chunk of the entire legislative programme of Government. The difficulty seems to be in distinguishing between what is important and what is urgent. Long-standing legislative commitments can be displaced by the need to respond immediately to current developments. That is a pattern in every Department and it is unfortunate that issues sometimes get side-tracked and do not make the progress they need to make. Bills get re-prioritised and, as I know, some Bills go backwards in the priority list. A former colleague introduced a Coroners (Amendment) Act 2005, which was accepted by the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Senator Michael McDowell, now a distinguished Senator, and became law. His officials were slower to agree to its implementation than the then Minister because they said they were already working on comprehensive legislative reform on the coroners' side but we did not see a coroners Bill until two years later. Ten years after that we are still waiting for a comprehensive code. In fact, the coroners Bill is not even on the legislative programme any more.
It is coming as well, is it? It is ten years on.
I have no doubt that budgetary restraints of the past few years have impacted, but I wonder if the Minister of State thinks any institutional changes are needed to improve the flow of legislation, particularly through the justice area. It is an area on which I was spokesperson many years ago, and it is an area of great demand. The volume of work coming from the Law Reform Commission together with the work being done on codification and consolidation of criminal law, all really important and welcome work, adds to the pressures on the legislative capacity of a Department. On that general issue, I would welcome hearing from the Minister of State or the Tánaiste about whether there is a restructuring, an additional support mechanism or a different way of ensuring that legislation does not get bogged down in Parliaments over more than a decade.
As I indicated, I very much welcome this legislation. It aims to implement the victims' directive and it broadly mirrors that directive, although there are, as I said and others have highlighted, some omissions we need to address. I say broadly, and will be touching on some other points later. We have the benefit of a review of the Bill by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Many of its observations are not to do with its drafting, but rather to do with the way that the Bill is to be implemented. I am thinking of the commission's observations about the need to encourage and support the reporting of crime. That is something we have to reflect on. Specifically, it refers to the reporting of hate crimes and providing assistance to victims of hate crimes. That is a category of crime that we are only now beginning to properly focus on. The commission also says that victims of sexual violence should be interviewed by a person of the same sex. That is a very simple requirement that one would think would be a matter of course in any event. More generally, it emphasises that training is essential for the professionals who are in regular contact with the victims of crime.
There is little or no point in legislating to the highest standards, as we try to do, if there is no effort to properly implement the laws that we pass. In particular, a crime victims' charter is effective only to the extent that it is actually put into practice. We are not great at that. I looked at much of the legislation that we pass ourselves. We spend enormous effort and time crafting good legislation, but making sure that it is implemented in the correct way, that the resources are there, that the training is there and that the cultural shift is put in place in some instances is a much more daunting task.
It is also depressing, if true, that this survey was only published following an instruction from the Policing Authority to senior Garda management to do so. I refer to the figures published in An Garda Síochána's own public attitudes survey. If a public attitude survey is done, it is important we actually see it. The survey involved 6,000 respondents and it showed that more than 40% of those who reported a crime to the gardaí were dissatisfied with the handling of that crime. If that is the case, it is a very worrying statistic. The Garda Assistant Commissioner, Michael O'Sullivan, agreed that some Garda members had, by their manner, alienated members of the public. He insisted that the problem could and would be addressed through training and changing the mindset. We have all spent much time focusing on the delivery of policing in this country and we have all come across minor examples of where a different way of behaving would have had a different result. I know of individual instances where issues were aggravated by a basic lack of courtesy at times and, at others, a lack of a little empathy for people who were victims of crime.
On the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission's 12 specific recommendations which were put before us, the Minister of State could usefully respond in detail to each of those as we advance, probably more properly on Committee Stage. It makes practical proposals about measures to encourage the reporting of crime and to ensure support services are available to victims who do not make formal complaints, about minimum common inter-agency standards to facilitate consistency of practice, about the necessary resources and guidance to bodies, and so on. In addition, the Victims' Rights Alliance has been in contact and has made useful observations to all of us about this Bill. Two aspects of its submission strike me and I hope the Minister of State is in a position to respond positively to those two observations. I have amendments prepared which I will table to deal with them, if necessary. It points out that Article 8(2) of the directive provides, as the previous speaker said, that the gardaí shall facilitate the referral of victims to victim support services. However, section 6(8) of the Bill merely provides that a member of An Garda Síochána "may, where a victim consents, arrange for the victim to be referred to a service which provides support for victims". There are cases where a lawyer will say that the word "may" in an Act actually means "shall" and vice versabut I do not think this is one of them. The Bill diverges from the directive for no clear or apparent reason, by making referral discretionary rather than mandatory. The Bill would be improved, and I hope the Minister of State will agree, if it was aligned more properly and accurately with the directive in that regard. Specifically, the phrase "may, where a victim consents" should be replaced with "shall, where a victim consents or so requests".
The second point raised by the Victims' Rights Alliance is that it seems to me that there is a gap between the directive's provision about restorative justice and what the Bill contains. As the previous speaker said, the Bill is silent on restorative justice. It was in the pre-legislative scrutiny, so what happened to it? I recognise that we do not have a statutory framework for restorative justice in this jurisdiction and it is important to say the whole concept has been given a bad name on this island, given the way in which the concept of restorative justice was hijacked by some paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and by their political champions. The IRA and Sinn Féin, in particular, at a time when they were boycotting normal or formal policing, were responsible for what could only be described as a grotesque charade that masqueraded as restorative justice. This sometimes involved - we know the individual cases - hauling the victim of the most serious cases, including very serious sexual abuse cases, to face the perpetrators of the crimes against them.
We have heard some of the evidence or testimony in public, and one can imagine how damaging it could be when people, victims of crime, were brought to dark back rooms and, in that menacing environment, were asked to face the people they knew had perpetrated the crime against them. That is not any concept of restorative justice that any of us could decently accept. The great majority of political parties and right-thinking citizens want nothing to do with that concept. Nonetheless we had an ad-hoc, non-statutory restorative justice programme operating on a pilot basis in this jurisdiction. It was run by the Probation Service and involved parties meeting in a supervised setting to discuss the effects of crime on a victim. From my understanding of it, that pilot programme was quite successful.
The EU directive does presume some sort of restorative justice system. Article 4(1)(j) asserts that victims must be informed, on first contact with the gardaí, of the available restorative justice services. Article 12 provides that "Member States shall take measures to safeguard the victim from secondary and repeat victimisation, from intimidation and from retaliation, to be applied when providing any restorative justice services." That is obviously a critical point. It would be a cruelty indeed if the notion of restorative justice was actually to further traumatise the victim and to exacerbate the damage done. That would be wholly and entirely unacceptable. We need to think very carefully about how this system could work, but it is one that has worked well in other jurisdictions.
The Department's own strategic review of penal policy was, as the Minister is aware, published in 2014. It acknowledged that the victim's directive promotes the appropriate use of restorative justice services, which is in line with the existing delivery of such services in this State. That is what it says. In addition, sections 26 and 28 of the Children Act, 2001 invite victims to be involved in a conference convened by a probation and welfare officer. That in and of itself is a form of restorative justice.
In this light, it seems to me mistaken that the right to access information on restorative justice and the right to safeguards on the use of restorative justice are not included in the Bill. Perhaps, in his summation of Second Stage, the Minister might explain why that is the case and whether there is to be a separate set of proposals coming in or other legislative measures to deal with this area. He might say whether it is not advanced, prepared or developed enough or if it is a resource issue. Whatever it is, it is an area in which many in this House have had an interest over time and I would be interested in hearing the official Departmental perspective on it. The failure to include restorative justice safeguards would seem to me to be a breach of our obligations under the victims' directive, as victims are engaged in these services regardless of a lack of statutory provision for such a scheme. As I say, I hope the Minister will respond on these points, specifically to see if we can craft amendments, either from the Opposition benches or from the Government, on these points before we get to Committee Stage.
A final point, raised by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, is a practical one. It relates to the need for a workable complaint mechanism involving a single contact point for victims to register a complaint about their treatment in the criminal justice system. A single contact point. This, IHREC points out, would assist in securing greater transparency, greater consistency and foreseeability of treatment in respect of victims of crime. I would be slow to recommend the establishment of victims of crime ombudsman. That does exist in some jurisdictions. It is effective elsewhere but I think we have a plethora now, particularly in the justice area. I would again be interested in hearing the views of the Minister in respect of where we could site such a contact point. Perhaps a one-stop shop could be developed under the auspices of GSOC or some other existing institution that might be expanded to include this one-stop contact point envisaged by the Human Rights and Equality Commission. Its point on this is very fair. It would also deal with consistency of treatment, which is really very important for us. We must learn consistently from the experiences of individual victims of crime.
I am advised that the success of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime in Canada, for example, illustrates the effectiveness of a formal model of this kind. Without such support victims may be left with no option other than to bring their complaint to a court, which is of no benefit to either the victim or the State if there is an alternative way of dealing with it.
These are the points I wanted to raise. I welcome the Bill and its arrival in the House. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say at the conclusion of Second Stage. As I say, on the points I have raised, I will table amendments to address what I regard as either lacunae in the Bill as published or improvements that could be made.
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.
I commend and congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, on the historic announcement yesterday regarding the recognition of ethnicity for our Traveller community. I note that, as the Taoiseach stressed in his speech, it does not have implications in terms of constitutional rights, other rights to resources and so on. I hope that the spirit of what was achieved yesterday will ensure that the necessary resources in terms of housing, education, training and so on are provided. That would be the measure of the announcement. The career of the Minister of State encompasses the same period as mine. It is good to see a very positive step forward.
I would also like to thank the Oireachtas library and research service for its excellent briefing on this Bill and my colleagues who helped me. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak briefly on the Bill. It is long overdue and is required in order to transpose EU Directive 2012/29/EU. It will replace Council Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA and amend the Criminal Evidence Act 1998, the Criminal Justice Act 1993 and the Courts Service Act 1998.
The Bill is approximately 16 months overdue. It is interesting to note that 11 member states have been reprimanded for lengthy delays in moving on the required legislation.
Victims will finally now have legally enforceable rights, which is the core of what we are discussing today. Maria McDonald of the Victims’ Rights Alliance said:
[F]or 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 [had] no legal force. This [now] has legal force.
I also recall the former General Secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors and former presidential candidate, Mr. Derek Nally, who deserves a mention for all the work he, his friends and colleagues, including many other members of An Garda Síochána, undertook to provide for victims of crime. He founded the Federation for Victim Assistance in 2005 along with Ms Mairead Fernane. Many other organisations have long done, and continue to do, great support and advocacy work for victims including One in Four, the Rape Crisis Centre, Women’s Aid and Support after Homicide. The Victims of Crime Office has received small increases in funding over the past couple of years with an additional €250,000 announced in budget 2017, which is welcome, but approximately 50 organisations are to receive funding from the total that is available, meaning it is spread thinly. Likewise, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, COSC, also received additional modest increases in funding.
Part 2 of this comprehensive Bill relates to information. This was a key concern for Deputies over the years. It is hoped that this will begin to address the worrying inconsistencies and failings of the system and An Garda Síochána in providing timely information to victims. The 2014 report by the Garda Inspectorate raised the kind of issues that we would have heard repeatedly over the years, including victims finding it difficult to contact the investigating garda due to changing shifts. Victims would ring a Garda station to find the investigating garda was not available and no one else was able to help them. Calls were not returned and appointments were not kept. People were not aware of the PULSE number that was allocated to an alleged crime. On many occasions there was no follow-up contact and victims sometimes learned of the outcome of their case in the courts section of the local newspaper. These are the kind of information concerns that we all would have had to grapple with down through the years. It certainly seems, therefore, common sense that information about where to get support, the status of an investigation or court case, reasons not to prosecute and outcomes of court cases would naturally be offered and provided to victims of crime. As I stated, unfortunately the performance in the past has varied greatly throughout the country and victims have often felt desperately frustrated.
Victims’ satisfaction on how gardaí are engaging with them often differs depending on the type of crime involved with those who are victims of heinous crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault sadly reporting lower levels of satisfaction than those who are victims of burglaries for example. When discussing the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill recently, our colleague, Deputy Shortall, called for the provision in that Bill for those under 18 years of age to give evidence from behind a screen to be extended to everyone. I welcome such provisions in section 14 of the Bill before us today. This allows for the identification of special protection needs and special measures to be extended to certain victims. Given the clear evidence of serious intimidation of witnesses and victims in the past, section 19, which provides for the exclusion of the public at the discretion of the court, is also a valuable step forward.
Most important, we now have a statutory definition of the word "victim" and a Bill that gives rights to victims, including rights to information, support and protection. For these reasons, I welcome the Bill. A victim is defined as "a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss, which was directly caused by an offence" and it will also extend to a family member should the victim have died because of the offence, except where the family member concerned may be implicated in the cause of death. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, in its review of the legislation recommended that the definition of victim should be expanded to be fully in line with the directive so that "an individual may be considered a victim regardless of whether an offender is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and regardless of the relationship between the offender and the victim".
Over the years, I have been contacted by many victims of crime who felt let down badly by the system. They faced problems with lack of information, communication with the investigating garda and feedback. Long periods of time have often ensued between forensic and other investigations by An Garda Síochána and any information on the conclusion of the investigation. Constituents have also raised grave concerns around the decisions of the DPP, particularly when the decision was not to prosecute. All of these demonstrate why the Bill is so badly needed but they also reinforce the need for improved training and resources. It is interesting that training and the additional resources it is hoped that the Minister of State will provide were raised repeatedly in the earlier debate. Perhaps this could be addressed in the amendments on Committee Stage.
I welcome section 27 which provides for the right to make a victim impact statement by amending section 5 of the Criminal Justice Act 1993. Victims' voices are the most important in appropriately dealing with crimes and deciding on outcomes. Section 6(1) provides for the information to be given to victims upon first contact with An Garda Síochána or GSOC. Section 6(1)(e) notes that it will include information on "the role of the victim in the criminal justice process". As we know, Ireland has an adversarial criminal justice process meaning that the main role of the victim was historically regarded as prosecution’s witness because the State takes the case if a decision is made to prosecute. Section 6(3)(a) states that information should be provided "as soon as practicable" but the Minister might consider changing the wording on Committee Stage to something such as "without unnecessary delay", as was recommended by the Rape Crisis Network Ireland in its observations on the Bill.
Another important point is one made by IHREC about the various agencies victims will be liaising with throughout the process. IHREC recommends that there should be a minimum standard set regarding the manner and timeframe around communication with victims to ensure consistency across agencies. In recent years, we have noticed the lengthy periods during which crimes are investigated and go through the court process. I was reviewing statistics on the criminal courts in other jurisdictions such as the Ministry of Justice's statistics bulletin for England and Wales. It appears to be a much faster process in many cases than our system. I am obviously moving beyond the territory of this Bill, but this is something that frustrates victims greatly. Justice delayed is justice denied. This year, we will often read about decisions made on crimes that took place in 2015 or earlier. It seems to be an endemic feature of our legal system that justice is so slow and cumbersome and we need to address it. Many people have noted that civil law jurisdictions, in particular, seem to have a much faster process of carrying out an investigation and proceeding through their court systems. These are bigger questions about how to proceed in the future. It is often said, for example, that we did not really change our legal system at all in 1916 or 1922 and that all of those who were in the British system before 1916 just morphed into the Free State system afterwards, with all its old English traditions. Whereas the English court system may have been greatly modernised in many respects, our own system still has a lot of cumbersome and slow features, which frustrates victims. I know that goes beyond this Bill, but perhaps we need to deal with it.
Section 7(2)(c) provides for information to be given to victims if a decision is reached "not to proceed with, or to discontinue, the investigation" and section 2(d)(ii) provides for the victim’s right to review such a decision.
The concept of reviewing a decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions addresses another element of the dissatisfaction frequently felt by victims.
The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, is another agency which may be involved and may run the investigation given that victims may contact GSOC first. Following the wide-ranging debate in the House last week on the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry into protected disclosures, we must review and strengthen the independent and investigative roles of GSOC, the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority.
While the Bill states no funding is required, increased resources will need to be made available to all agencies involved in the proper execution of the rights bestowed on victims by the Bill. There is no point inserting in legislation phrases that sound great and in that connection I refer again to the step forward we made in the House last night. Victims' rights must be backed up with necessary supports, including upgrading information technology infrastructure for the Garda and Courts Service. Many complaints have been made regarding the flow of information between the PULSE system, the Road Safety Authority and the national vehicle driver file in respect of fatal road traffic accidents. Substantial resources are required in this area. In October 2016, the Victims Rights Alliance and Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, began the process of identifying additional training that will be required for lawyers for the implementation of this directive. I welcome news that the European Commission is funding this project, which will also include other jurisdictions in the European Union.
Why will legally enforceable rights only be applied to criminal proceedings that begin after commencement of the Bill? Given the length of time involved in many criminal proceedings, surely most aspects of the Bill could be applied immediately upon commencement.
The Rape Crisis Network Ireland recommends that a victims ombudsman's office be established to ensure all the Bill's provisions are adhered to. A previous speaker referred to the plethora of bodies we have in the justice area. Perhaps the victims ombudsman function could be performed by one or other of the existing agencies.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, cited a worrying statistic which highlights that Ireland is letting down victims of crime, particularly those most at risk of repeat victimisation. Deputy Ruth Coppinger raised this issue in connection with serious sexual assault cases, domestic violence in all its forms and people who have left home because their lives have been threatened. Most Deputies have encountered cases involving homeless women who fear for their lives because they have violent partners. IHREC's submission on the Bill states that "Ireland is not currently fulfilling the minimum requirement to provide shelters or appropriate interim accommodation 'for victims in need of a safe place due to an imminent risk of secondary and repeat victimisation, of intimidation and of retaliation', with reports in 2016 of 4,831 unmet requests for emergency accommodation." This issue is also within the remit of the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, whom I have repeatedly asked to declare a housing emergency along the lines of the banking emergency and take whatever steps are necessary to address this statistic. Even in recent weeks, I have been contacted by people who are desperately seeking emergency accommodation, in part on the grounds set out by the IHREC. Legislation on repeat victimisation needs to be strengthened and the issue of emergency accommodation needs to be addressed.
I also note the submission made by the Irish Penal Reform Trust on the importance of restorative justice. I echo the disappointment expressed by previous speakers regarding the omission from the Bill of head 28, which would have placed adult restorative justice practices on a statutory footing. I ask the Minister to explain the reasons for the exclusion of this head. The National Commission on Restorative Justice defines restorative justice as "a victim-sensitive response to criminal offending, which, through engagement with those affected by crime, aims to make amends for the harm that has been caused to victims and communities and which facilitates offender rehabilitation and integration into society." The Irish Penal Reform Trust's submission references the Le Chéile annual report of 2013, Building Bridges, which showed an average 22% increase in victim empathy levels after restorative justice interventions and noted that 100% of victims and offenders felt "their voices were heard throughout the process". We must develop a process of restorative justice and I ask the Minister to consider this before Committee Stage.
Paragraph 12 of the directive includes the statement that "the rights set out in this Directive are without prejudice to the rights of the offender. The term 'offender' refers to a person who has been convicted of a crime." It is important to note that offenders, while imprisoned, may also be victims of crime and may constitute vulnerable persons. As such, they would also have rights under the Bill.
I paid tribute to the organisations which have worked hard over the years on behalf of victims. I commend the great work of the civil society group Promoting Awareness, Responsibility and Care on our Roads, PARC, which is led by Ms Susan Gray. PARC produced and disseminated an excellent information guide entitled Finding Your Way, which is shared on An Garda Síochána’s website. This free information guide for families of victims of fatal and serious road traffic collisions recently received the "highly commended" accolade at the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, plain English awards 2016. The Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, instructed Garda family liaison officers to distribute Finding Your Way to families bereaved as a result of road traffic collisions. The guide sets out the rights available to families and is exactly the type of tailored, crime specific information the directive requires to be provided to victims of crime.
I generally welcome the Bill. However, my colleagues, Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, will try to make improvements on Committee Stage when they address some of the points I have raised.