Currently, rape cases, considered second in seriousness to murder, can only be heard in the Central Criminal Court, in Dublin. Moving them to other courts would send out the wrong message and deter women from reporting assaults, said Ingrid Wallace of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, which represents 14 centres. "We would be opposed to moving rape cases from the Central Criminal Court to the Circuit Court.
"Rape is such a serious crime and we worked so hard to have it seen in that way, that if you shift it to the Circuit Court you would be giving a clear message that we're not taking it as seriously as we used to." In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr McDowell said the move would be part of a restructured courts system and would help address the lengthy backlog of rape cases. Because of a shortage of High Court judges, rape cases can take up to four years before being heard in the Central Criminal Court. "The Circuit Court has jurisdiction to deal with the most complicated fraud cases, theft, robberies, but isn't entitled to do the most simplest rape cases. Maybe that distinction has to be revisited," said Mr McDowell.
He said he wanted to ensure that circuit courts could deal with a wider variety of crime. The minister said he did not think it was an index of the seriousness of a crime just because it was heard in the Central Criminal Court.
He said indecent assaults, which are heard in the Circuit Court, are "sometimes far more serious sexual offences than rape."
He gave a submission on reforming the courts system, including the issue of moving the venue of rape cases, to a Courts Service working group on jurisdiction last weekend. However, Ms Wallace said the proposal, if implemented, would threaten the anonymity of survivors and lead to more intimidation and bullying of victims by relatives of the perpetrator.
"If you are going to give the message to women that their case is going to be shunted over to the Circuit Court, people would say 'if I go down to the local courtroom anybody can find out about it, I'll be the talk of the local community. This is not a crime that I want everybody to know about.'"
Mr McDowell said he would be talking to Rape Crisis groups in the near future.