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'The person can't move on - they are required to remember': Rape survivors 'dropping cases' because of waits for trials

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is calling for pre-recording of some trial evidence in cases.

Image: Shutterstock/Oleg Golovnev

LONG WAITS FOR sexual offences and rape trials are having an effect on survivors, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre says – and making some people drop out of the legal process.

Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) told TheJournal.ie that in its experience, delays are turning some people off persisting with their case.

One of the DRCC’s staff members who organises volunteers to accompany people to court – a service that DRCC provides – had raised the issue again this week. The delay comes not between the reporting of an alleged offence and a person being charged, but between the person being charged and the case going to trial.

“If you were raped last week and you went and reported it this week to the police you could expect that depending on a few factors the investigation would be completed within a couple of months,” explained Blackwell. “Then it would go to the DPP [Director of Public Prosecution] and if a prosecution was proceeding you would be told about that within another month or six weeks.”

But she said in its experience a person might then wait two or three years before the case reaches the court – and there may be adjournments when it does go to trial, which would also lengthen the time. 

Some of the latest court cases seen by DRCC recently date back to seven years ago, but the more typical ones it is seeing in court right now date back to 2015 and 2016, said Blackwell.

‘The body is the scene of the crime’

DRCC is particularly concerned because “the body, the complainant is really the scene of the alleged crime at that stage”. This means, said Blackwell, “that the person can’t move on – they are required to remember and to rethink about everything that happened if the case is to go ahead”.

“All the time they have to keep this at the forefront of their mind,” she went on.

If they came into us for support and help and therapy, in some ways what you’re doing in therapy is to not say it never happened, but to say ‘you live your life without it dominating it’.

She said that long waits for trials mean people have to do “the exact opposite” as they must constantly face the details of the alleged crime.

“There is no other crime really that requires you to retain every single detail of this most intimate violence, but you have to do it in these cases because that’s going to be at the heart of the defendant’s defence and your cross examination,” explained Blackwell.

The DRCC is concerned about the impact of this on people. 

It has heard from people who have said, while going in for therapeutic help, “I am not going back to this system; I am not going to re-traumatise myself again by going into the space”.

“They drop it. It adds to the attrition of cases. ‘I am getting on with my life, I’m not going to go back there’,” said Blackwell. “So the cases don’t get heard, don’t go forward because the complainant is central to them. When they do go forward they have been hampered in their own recovery and own dealing with it by having to remember all of this.”

There is also a concern about how much information can be retained over years, particularly following trauma. 

“Memory plays tricks on us all. Then they can sometimes feel like liars when they don’t remember some tiny detail or when put to them a different way and they can’t quite remember it that way,” said Blackwell. “It’s not like remembering what the registration of your car was when it was stolen, it is remembering where you met somebody, how many friends were with you on the evening you met them. Trauma changes the way you remember [things].”

Pre-recording

In order to deal with this aspect, the DRCC is calling for the pre-recording of witness statements at the pre-trial stage, so that the evidence is kept on file, particularly in the cases of vulnerable witnesses. 

Cross-examination could also potentially be recorded, while doctors and police could give evidence at later stage, she added. “The system as it stands right now is simply not geared towards hearing intimate violence,” said Blackwell. 

There are further concerns in the cases of children and sexual crime trials. “If you have a child where the reported incident happened when they are 8 and if the case doesn’t come to trial when they are 13, that’s half their life [they are waiting].”

“And their way of thinking, the rate at which they are developing, delay in cases of abuse of children is particularly difficult.”

Again, the DRCC would like evidence pre-recorded at an early stage here. “It’s true for both sides,” added Blackwell, referring to the defendant. “So does the accused have to remember it, every single detail, all the time as well.”

Most accused and complainants know each other and may be interacting family members, pointed out Blackwell, which can add to the difficulties in bringing cases to court. 

“The delay in these cases is disproportionately harmful,” said Blackwell.

She said that the appointment of an extra judge into the High Court had in recent years improved things to a degree, but added that that case management also comes into it.

“Case managing these cases better would make a huge difference,” she said.

Attrition “happens the whole way through the system”, said Blackwell, noting that it is still likely no more than 8% of sexual assaults or rapes are being reported in the first place and going forward for trial.

“There is still a massive reluctance to report at all,” she said.

We had over 7,000 first time contacts to our national helpline in 2018, and the CSO showed over 3,300 offences were reported in 2018. If we get as many as twice as many calls to the helpline as the guards are getting, you can imagine the reporting level is very small.

“Going through the system people drop off at various stages as there can sometimes be pressure on them from other people,” she said. “Very often they themselves can’t face it. There can be a family situation where they go nope, I’m not going to go there – too disruptive.”

Waiting times

A spokesperson for the courts service said that the average waiting times for rape and murder trials before the central criminal court stands at 11 months, from the time they are received by the court to the trial date.

It’s understood that 15 to 20 years ago the waiting times could stretch over 4+ years.

The courts service said that extra resources and judges have been put into this area over the last number of years. 

According to the 2018 figures for the Central Criminal Court, there were:

  • 99 defendants in 94 trials
  • 57 pleaded guilty to some charges.
  • 938 allegations involved.

It said that new cases received last year included 26 defendants charged with murder; 79 defendants charged with rape/attempted rape; 48 defendants charged with indecent sexual assault.

When it came to sentencing in rape cases, these were the sentences in 2018:

  • Under 2 years: 0
  • 2-5 years 12: 4.25% of cases
  • 5-10 Years 148: 52.48% of cases
  • Over 10 years 122: 43.26% of cases

The Rape Crisis Centre national 24-hour helpline is 1800 77 8888.

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