Rape crisis groups - and survivor - call for change of attitude in courts

Rape crisis groups - and survivor - call for change of attitude in courts

Rape crisis groups say a change of attitude is needed in the courts and among the public towards victims of sexual violence and their treatment in trials.

They back comments from Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan who says a "full-blooded defence" is not always appropriate in rape cases and that new protocols are needed governing the kind of evidence that could be used in court and the way complainants' behaviour was assessed.

The remarks were sparked by the case of Leona O'Callaghan who waived her right to anonymity to name the serial offender who raped her as a child and to highlight the obstacles and issues she faced when taking her case to court.

Ms O'Callaghan questioned why the issue of consent was raised in her case when she was only 13 at the time she was raped and why defence for the accused was allowed plea in mitigation that she had only been physically held down once in a series of rapes.

"The process is hard enough. This is one step away from saying 'she was asking for it'. It's unethical, immoral and it's not needed," she said.

Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre said the case shows up many flaws in the system. "It shows how much of a mindset change is needed in our general public but also in our legal system, in our judicial system, in our trial system so that people understand that anything that is not free and voluntary consent is not consent at all. A woman's clothes, her failure to shout 'no' - none of these things are what rape is about. The judiciary, the legal system needs to understand the myths that we all have in our own heads, jurors need to understand them."

Cliona Sadlier of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland echoed that view. "This is something we have to be absolutely clear about. The absence of a no and a physical fight in terms of sexual violence does not make it not rape," she said.

This comes up again and again - that somehow we are asking survivors to perform in a particular way before we believe them and what we are not taking into consideration is the grooming, the coercive control, the threat, the fear, the strategic choices that survivors make either consciously or unconsciously about their safety, about their survival and then we use that against them it the courtroom.

Ms O'Callaghan also hit out at the delays in the system as it took four years from the time she made her statement to Gardai until her case concluded. She said she had "barely made it through" and pleaded with the Minister to give more resources to speed things up.

Ms Sadlier said delays in processing cases is causing survivors to walk away from the justice system. She said improvements could be made through better case management and pre-trial hearings: "That would be one of the most significant things we can do to make it easier for survivors to go through the system." Both women were speaking on RTÉ.

Debate over how rape trials are conducted re-erupted a fortnight ago with outcry after a 17-year-old girl's lacy thong was produced in court to argue she was anticipating sex. This was followed by Ms O'Callaghan's case and a review in Northern Ireland which recommends radical changes to the law there after the trial and acquittal of four Ireland rugby players earlier this year.

The Northern Ireland system is different in that it allows naming of defendants and public admission to trials. Defendants can only be named here after a conviction - and then only if the victim is not in danger of being identified - unless the victim waives that protection or in rare cases where a special application is made to name the defendant where it might bring forward other victims.

Mr Flanagan last August appointed law professor, Tom O'Malley, to chair a similar review in this jurisdiction. It is expected to look at, among other issues, the granting of legal representation to all rape complainants as currently this only happens when it is intended by the defence to raise the complainant's sexual history.

Professor O'Malley's report is due in the next few months. The Law Reform Commission is also examining the issue.


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