Victims of sexual crime have broadly welcomed the justice minister’s new plan to make the justice system more supportive of vulnerable witnesses.
Helen McEntee’s initiative, called Supporting A Victim’s Journey, is calling for specialist training for judges, lawyers, gardaí and others working with victims of sexual crime so they can be better supported throughout the legal process.
Its reforms aim to create a more victim-centred approach to the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences.
Free legal advice is to be provided to victims of sexual assault, even where there is no prosecution, a development welcomed by many victims and their advocates.
But the plan has drawn criticism for its failure to prohibit quizzing an alleged victim of sexual abuse about their sexual history in court, although doing so will now require prior agreement by the judge and must take place in a private hearing where the victim has the protection of full legal counsel.
Amy Barrett, whose father Jerry O'Keefe was sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping her over a five year period and regularly abusing her younger sister Melissa at their home in Youghal, Co, Cork, said that seeing something done to help victims was encouraging.
“When you’re going up to court you're just a witness for the State. So you feel like a lot of control is taken out of your hands," Ms Barrett said.
"For me and my sister, the control was already taken away from us being abused so young. Our childhood was taken away from us.
"Going to court is frightening. Having to face my dad staring me down, giving me that look ‘say anything and you’re in trouble’. But I stared him down back.
"It’s very important for victims to feel that they’re in control now, that nothing is sprung on them in court."
She welcomed increased training for professionals and the provision of counselling for victims and professionals helping them.
But she worries that very long waiting lists for counselling through the HSE may prevent victims from accessing timely support.
Naomi Woodyatt, who says she was raped at a Dublin hotel while travelling to her father’s funeral, said anything that makes the judicial system kinder to victims is “fantastic.”
She noticed a huge difference in dealing with the specially trained Protective Services Unit.
“The special investigations unit treated me so differently to regular gardaí. They were so kind. They asked a lot of questions but they knew how to ask those questions," she said.
"And if you encounter people like that on your journey, it makes such a difference. Having people who are trained, going through the steps necessary for justice but softening the trauma of it is really important."
But Mary Crilly, CEO of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork said that the plan, based on the recommendations made in the recent O’Malley report does not go far enough.
“The system itself is broken," she said.
"We had an amazing opportunity to change that but from what I can see it was just amended in a few places. I would love to be proved wrong but I don’t hold out much hope that this will make a huge difference to victims of sexual crime."
Call the Sexual Violence Centre Cork on 1800 496 496 or the Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 77 88 88.