FERGUS FINLAY: We must recognise families caught up in the criminal justice system

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much courage in a room as I did last Saturday. Nobody was there because they wanted to be, and yet they came from all over Ireland to be with each other, writes Fergus Finlay

Throughout the afternoon there were hugs and handclasps, tears and heart-breaking stories.

In a moving ceremony, people brought pictures, poems, mementos and lighted candles to a table at the top of the room. Everyone who brought something was given a single long-stemmed rose, and in turn they queued at the end to contribute their flowers to a single and beautiful bouquet.

There was a reading of names, and even as a stranger in the room I was struck by how many of the names I recognised – some famous, some I dimly remembered. We were in a church – the Unitarian Church in St Stephen’s Green - and the table containing the flowers and candles was set under a set of marble plaques that contained the eight beatitudes, the first of which, strikingly, said “Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted”.

The thing that all these families had in common, the thing that bound them together, was that they had all lost a loved one as a result of murder. Every second year, the organisation that represents them, AdVIC, holds a memorial service whose primary purpose is to remember and honour those who have died.

In my life I’ve known one person who was murdered and one family that suffered the long-term consequences of that terrible crime. But it’s not until you are confronted with the reality of so many families that you come to realise the unique and awful enormity of those consequences.

Murder causes an intensely public and prolonged bereavement. Every loss of a loved one causes pain and suffering. But a murder obliges families often to deal with their grief in the glare of publicity – and much more than that. Murder doesn’t just lead to a sorrowful funeral – it can involve an autopsy, a post mortem, an inquest, a Garda investigation, an arrest, a trial, a conviction (or an acquittal), a sentence, sometimes a parole. It can involve utterly intrusive and often insensitive media activity. The families of those who are murdered live through all this and more.

AdVIC was formed to ensure that the rights of families of homicide victims are not ignored within the Criminal Justice System and to bring about a fairer, more balanced system for such families. Why is it unbalanced?

It can start with insensitivity. I spoke on Saturday to one father who attended the trial of the person who had murdered his child, and was put sitting close to members of the defence team. He will never forget the moment that he saw defence lawyers casually leafing through post-mortem photographs of the child he had loved – photos no father should ever see.

That kind of casual insensitivity within the justice system, in which the families are seen as entirely peripheral to the core issues of guilt or innocence, can inflict terrible brutalities on families that have already borne more than families should have to. We often talk about the entitlement of families to “closure” when someone they love has been murdered. But it’s probably more accurate to say that scar tissue will only be able to form over the wound when justice has been done and seen to be done.

In Barnardos we work often with children who have been traumatically bereaved. Trauma adds a huge dimension to grief – in fact it is usually necessary to deal with the trauma before the grief can be approached. Post traumatic stress can cause endless painful symptoms - recurring nightmares, intense anxiety, preoccupation with the death many months after it occurred, detachment and withdrawal from friends and family, inability to experience emotions, to feel happy, or to love anyone.

We must recognise families caught up in the criminal justice system

For many children, the world suddenly stops being a safe place. It becomes hard to accept that normal life will ever happen again. For many of them, the hard job of dealing with grief has to wait until the traumatic effects subside.

AdVIC understands this, it’s why they offer advice and counselling to families when they can. As a small voluntary-run organisation that can be hard – and it’s hard too for them to command attention for the legal and administrative changes that families need to see.

But their size and their limited resources don’t stop them campaigning. Their core aim is to secure a re-balancing of the criminal justice system so that the status of families will be recognised within it. They also want to ensure that a comprehensive and co-ordinated inter-agency support service is offered to all families. That would mean, for instance, that in the pre-trial system every family would have a Victim Liaison Officer, who would be properly trained to assist the family in dealing with the system and in helping them to work through its complexities.

Families who have dealt with the appalling consequences of murder want a number of other simple things. They want cases to go to trial much more quickly than they routinely do. They want the book of evidence to contain a character profile of the victim submitted by the family of the homicide victim. They want the family of the victim to be allowed to give an impact victim statement after all homicide convictions.

They want the families of manslaughter victims to be given the opportunity to make representations to the DPP when that office is considering bringing an appeal against a sentence for manslaughter on grounds of undue leniency. They want post mortem results to be made available to the family automatically, in advance of inquests.

None of these demands conflict with the basic principles of guilt or innocence, or interfere with the right to a fair trial. Of course they require changes in law, and they demand, above all, that an often too-bureaucratic system be reformed to recognise that murder has more than one victim, and that the living victims of a violent crime carry burdens that can weigh far too much and last far too long. None of AdVIC’s demands, in that context, are unreasonable in the slightest.

But what the organisation wants to do, above all, is to offer hope to families that are suffering. One little girl on Saturday brought a poem to the table of photographs and candles. It was written by a family friend about her dad – “he lit up our lives every day,” it said, “the big friendly giant, we used to say.” The bereavement counsellors who work in Barnardos describe the children they work with as among the bravest they know. They learn, over time, how to deal with terrible things, and how to grow through that. One 12-year-old girl told one of our counsellors something she never forgot – and I can’t get it out of my head either.

“I know that terrible things happen to people. I have really sad memories, and happy memories. I have friends I love and a family that means everything to me. The worst thing that can ever happen to me has happened already. And I know I’ll be ok.”

Murder causes an intensely public and prolonged bereavement in a glare of publicity, and more than that


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