The Irish Examiner View: Balancing conflicting rights and hopes in our justice system

Reporting on sex offences in spotlight
The Irish Examiner View: Balancing conflicting rights and hopes in our justice system
06/08/2020Minister for Justice Helen McEntee. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Every society has recurring issues that divide it. 

Today, America is revisiting its enduring cancer, this time through the Black Lives Matter movement. Britain, specifically England, struggles to make its nationalism plausible in a globalised, post-colonial world. 

Turkey, like many countries, flips between conservatism and secularism. 

We, and many other societies too, sometimes split when personal or religious beliefs and judicial processes collide. This is especially true when courts are asked to rule on cases involving sexual violence - or cases involving allegations of sexual violence. 

Though it's almost 40 years since the Kerry Babies Tribunal transfixed the country with a heady cocktail of voyeurism and sanctimony the cultural fault lines then exposed persist even if not as absolute or as deeply misogynistic. 

In the interim, there have been many cases involving accusations of sexual attacks that have become much more, and far more revealing, than the issues immediately in play. Recognising that does not diminish the importance of case or the obligation to treat every allegation seriously and properly protect the person who makes an allegation. 

Neither does that recognition distract from the shameful truth that far too many people who wish to make allegations of sexual assault are dissuaded by the ordeals endured by some who do.

That is one side of the coin but the other side is pertinent too. The Belfast Rape trial raised issues around the life-changing impact on those accused and identified even if the charges against them are dismissed. That the woman who made the accusations was identified on social media despite a court anonymity order shows how complex this all is. 

That case provoked passionate debate, so much so that then minister for justice Charlie Flanagan commissioned a review of how our courts deal with the issues. By doing this Mr Flanagan tacitly recognised the one issue all involved might agree on - our procedures, and the culture that informs them, are not working.   

The 50 findings of that review were published yesterday. One was that those charged with sexual crimes should not be named unless and until they are convicted as long as naming them did not identify their victims. At the same time, victims would retain anonymity unless they waive it so a convicted person could be named. Among other recommendations was a pre-trial filtering where a legal team planning to refer to a complainant's sexual history would need to apply to do so at a pretrial hearing, an innovation welcomed by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee has promised to develop a delivery plan and bring it to Government before October. “I want to ensure that we can effectively tackle the scourge of sexual violence, which is a blight on our society," she said yesterday. Those concerns are urgent and justified as garda figures show that the number of sexual crimes reported increased for the sixth year in-a-row last year. There was a 3% increase in the total number of sexual offences reported to the force last year, up from 3,179 offences in 2018.

These issues must be tackled but it will be challenging to balance personal rights with society's demands for transparency - and that is now a secondary issue. 

As the Belfast trial showed social media platforms make it all too easy for those of malignant intent to ignore rules protecting individuals. 

Controlling that monster will be far more challenging than changing proceedings to better protect those who find themselves before a judge and jury.

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