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Judges, lawyers, and gardaí to get specialist training to better support victims of sexual violence

A review into the legal protections offered to complainants in sexual assault cases was carried out following the high-profile Belfast rape trial in 2018.

Image: Shutterstock/Mr. Sergey Olegovich

JUDGES, LAWYERS AND members of the gardaí are to receive specialist training in order to better support victims in sexual violence cases, Justice Minister Helen McEntee will announce today.

A review into the legal protections offered to complainants in sexual assault cases published in August, was first instituted by the previous minister for justice Charlie Flanagan following the high-profile Belfast rape trial in 2018.

The 140-page report by Tom O’Malley made a whole host of recommendations around providing support for victims and the training of legal practitioners, but stopped short of recommending separate legal representation for victims throughout the entire trial. 

The ‘Supporting A Victim’s Journey: A Plan to Help Victims and Vulnerable Witnesses in Sexual Violence Cases’, which is being launched today by the minister is a response to the recommendations in the initial report.

The government’s plan commits to rolling out specialist training for judges, lawyers, An Garda Síochána and others to ensure victims are supported throughout investigation and prosecution.

The Supporting a Victim’s Journey plan also outlines reforms to ensure a victim centered approach to the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences.

Free legal advice to victims of sexual assault, even where there is no prosecution, will be provided.

The minister’s plan details over 50 individual reforms, assigns responsibility within government for each reform and also sets ambitious timelines for their completion.

Minister McEntee said:

“When a person becomes the victim of a terrible crime, I want them to have confidence that the criminal justice system, and all those who work within it, will treat them with dignity and empathy and will support them at every turn.”

The plan makes outlines a commitment from the Judicial Council that training for judges on how vulnerable victims will be treated during sexual offence trials will be completed in 2021.

The Bar Council will also develop a course within its Continuing Professional Development framework to train barristers on how to treat victims, including how they should be questioned, and to gain a better understanding of the victim’s experience.

The Law Society will examine if its current training structures can be adapted to provide updated training. Its annual Criminal Law Conference in March 2021 is envisaged to provide such training for criminal practitioners.

The Department of Justice will also ensure that all personnel in State Agencies who are likely to have to deal with victims of sexual crime should have appropriate training.

The minister said specific proposals will be developed as part of the 3rd National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, which will be in place by the end of 2021.

In addition, all serving members of An Garda Síochána engaged in front line policing will receive specialist training for engaging with victims of sexual crime and vulnerable witnesses.

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This is in addition to the nationwide rollout of the Divisional Protective Services Units (DPSUs), which has been completed in recent weeks.

The national rollout of the DPSUs was a recommendation of the O’Malley review.

“The delivery targets for the recommendations are ambitious but I am determined we will achieve them because vulnerable victims deserve a system that supports and works for them.

“This report is not the final say on how better we can support victims. ‘Supporting A Victim’s Journey’ is a living document and I will establish a consultative body to ensure organisations and groups working with victims continue to have an input into how we will implement change,” said the minister.

Other key actions include a range of initiatives that will be taken to educate people around the meaning of consent including a major awareness campaign, dedicated website and a number of actions within primary, secondary and third level education.

New legislation will also give effect to the recommendations on preliminary hearings to help reduce delays which will be published before the end of December 2020.

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