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Column: Sleepless nights and anger – it’s all part of being a crime victim

For those affected by crime the emotional effects can be as damaging as the physical ones, writes Maeve Ryan.

Image: Katie Collins/PA Archive/Press Association Images

MOST PEOPLE WHO fall victim to crime suffer some degree of upset, distress and trauma as a result. Crime victimisation can affect people in a variety of ways, but one of the principal ways is the emotional upset.

In addition to experiencing grief and loss due to the changes caused by crime, many people also experience anxiety, anger, frustration, difficulty in making decisions, sleep troubles, relationship conflicts, and other effects. There are also many physical effects such as pain associated with injuries, short term or long term disability, stress-pain such as headache or backache, scarring due to injuries, loss of appetite and general inability to relax or to enjoy life.

Other people are greatly affected financially – whether through loss of money or property in the actual crime, loss of materials and equipment used to earn their living, or costs incurred by repairing damage to broken doors and windows or to a crashed car.

As if all this weren’t enough, many people who call our helpline, in addition to being victimised by crime, speak of an upsetting sense of being ‘let down’ by the criminal justice system. Complaints about lack of progress of a case, lack of communication, difficulty in contacting the investigating garda, long delays at each stage of the process, lack of legal advice for victims of crime – these are some of the issues that come up over and over again in our calls.

Many people are shocked to realise that as a victim of crime they do not have a central role in criminal justice proceedings, and are in fact witnesses in a case taken by the state against the alleged offender. They often contrast the legal representation afforded to the accused – who will have a ‘legal team’ and a whole range of rights including the right to see the statement made by the crime victim – with their own situation; they are not allowed any legal representation, have few rights, and are allowed access only to their own statement.

‘The victim of the crime is often unaware that these hearings are going on’

While there are historical reasons for this imbalance, most people who find themselves thrown into this situation as a crime victim find it incredibly difficult to ‘get their heads around’ how the system works. As time goes by they slowly and painfully discover some of the intricacies of the system.

For example any case that is being brought to trial will always have several preliminary stages in the courts before coming to a full hearing. These hearings are referred to as ‘for mention’, and what may happen at such hearings include the DPP’s direction as to whether the case should be dealt with in the District or the Circuit Court, the serving of the book of evidence on the accused, a decision by the accused as to pleading guilty or not guilty, etc.

The victim of the crime is often unaware that these hearings are going on, as their presence as a ‘witness’ is not required in the court, This can lead to a situation where the case can actually come to a conclusion in a court and be disposed of without the victim being present. In fact in cases where the accused pleads guilty and the case is dealt with in the District Court, there is no longer any need for the witness to be present. In this event it is likely that the victim will have no opportunity to tell the court what happened, or about the impact of this crime on his/her life.

Obviously for cases of the most serious crimes this will not happen. However many callers to our helpline, who are victims of what are regarded as ‘less serious’ crimes, feel doubly traumatised by their experience within the criminal justice system. Secondary victimisation is the recognised name given to this syndrome, and it is a regular feature of calls that we receive. No person or institution sets out to re-victimise a victim of crime, yet this is often an unintended consequence of how the system operates.

One step that could be taken to alleviate this problem is to ensure that in every criminal court case it would be obligatory to give consideration to the victim of the crime. A check list should be available to the judge and to the prosecuting officers to check the common issues of concern to crime victims.

  • Has the victim/injured party been given an opportunity to be present in court?
  • Would the victim/injured party like to say anything in court?
  • Has the property been recovered?
  • Will the property be returned to the owner?
  • Has the victim/injured party been informed of support services?
  • Has the matter of compensation (if relevant) been discussed with the victim/injured party in case the judge should make such an enquiry?

This is just one suggestion that could change the experience of many victims of crime who deal with the case as it goes through the justice system. We believe at Crime Victims Helpline that the agencies of the criminal justice system should do all in their power to improve the system to support victims of crime.

Maeve Ryan is the service co-ordinator of the Crime Victims Helpline. Anyone who wants to contact the helpline can call freephone 116006, or callsave 1850 21 14 07. People can also make contact through crimevictimshelpline.ie or by texting to 085 1337711. The service is free and confidential, and available to everyone.

Assault, burglary, criminal damage, fraud, harassment, intimidation, theft and robbery are some of the crimes that Crime Victims Helpline deals with daily as well as domestic and sexual violence, manslaughter and murder.

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