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Sasko Lazarov
Sex Offences

Bill proposes cross-examining people who give character references for sex offenders

“What is the relevance of somebody being a great footballer? There has to be a relevance to it,” Regina Doherty said of her bill.

A BILL IS to be introduced to the Seanad in the next couple of weeks that would see character references for sexual offenders being submitted under oath, which would allow the prosecution to cross examine those that submit character references.

As it stands, written character references are submitted to the court after a verdict is given. The aim of character references are to lessen the sentence the judge would hand down for the crime committed.

As character references are not submitted under oath, there is no statutory obligation on them to be truthful, and they are not able to be interrogated by the prosecution. 

Leader of Seanad Éireann and Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty has proposed the bill, after months of working with Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

The bill will apply to both sexual and violent crimes; Doherty said sexual and violent crimes against women are the most common cases where character references are used. 

Doherty told The Journal that the bill came about following a number of high-profile cases over the years, where character references were submitted in favour of sex offenders.

This can, and often does, retraumatise the sex offender’s victim, Doherty said.

She said that when character references are submitted, it is usually on behalf of the person “who is just found guilty, and has jarred with every woman and sensible man in the country”.

She said that the need for character references should be questioned, as “we shouldn’t have a need for them – sure to god [sentencing] should be based on the crime you’ve been found guilty of”. 

What is the relevance of somebody being a great footballer? There has to be a relevance to the information given.
I don’t care how good a footballer you are, and it doesn’t make it ok to me that you may have had ‘five minutes out of character’ – I don’t really care. If you’re a rapist, you’re a rapist.

Whether “you’ve a local bishop or GAA president telling you how great he used to be”, shouldn’t matter, she added.

Doherty said that when sentencing someone, both the offence and the offender are considered, so different backgrounds may lead to widely varied sentences.

She added that this “belies the offence you’ve just committed”, if a sentence for sexual assault is mitigated, for example, for a “white collar worker who has friends in high places”. 

Character references can be used to show that a crime might have been “out of character” or that the person experienced a lapse in judgement, and Doherty has said she has been told that judges “don’t give any mind to them”.

“But they have to be held in some stock if they’re allowed to continue to happen,” she said.

They should be brought under oath, they have to be able to be challenged. And so this Bill would do two things: one, is make sure any referee gives character references as evidence under oath, and two is that the character reference can be challenged.

Character references can still be submitted in written format, with the idea that the person who submits them, the referee, would then be summoned to court to be cross examined on that reference by the prosecution.

The hope is that people will think twice about giving references, and that it will empower the vicitm to ask and challenge the references – it might be less traumatising and less intimidating for them.  

Doherty said that she would be introducing the bill to the Seanad “in next couple of weeks”. 

The bill was revealed today alongside co-sponsors of the bill: the deputy leader of Seanad Éireann, Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers, and the Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly. 

Doherty said that it was ”unique” that the three parties have three female leaders in the Seanad, and that it shows “the three of us are listening, and our respective parties are listening”.

“My Fine Gael colleagues are happy, and the minister responded as positive,” she said, adding that the bill could be amended, but that the premise of it “is a good one”. 

The legislation is called the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2022.

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