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'Urgent action' needed to regulate access to the counselling notes of child sex abuse survivors

The RCNI has called for an end to the current system which allows a child’s intimate counselling notes, discussing their sexual abuse, to be used during a court trial.

Image: Kamira via Shutterstock

A CALL FOR all-party support to regulate the access to sexual violence survivors’ counselling notes has been made by the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland (RCNI), which says judges urgently need powers to regulate the disclosure of counselling notes relating to child victims.

The RCNI called on Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter to include the proposed amendment to the Courts Bill proposed by Senator Van Turnhout, before the Seanad today, saying it would give Ireland’s judges “urgently needed powers to regulate the disclosure of counselling notes relating to child victims”.

“The Van Turnhout amendment is both essential and urgent in the interest of justice and the protection of the child witness in a criminal case of child sexual violence,” said Fiona Neary RCNI Director. “Devastating and unacceptable choices are being forced on parents of children in cases of sexual violence by an accidental gap in our law which exposes vulnerable children to potential trauma in our court rooms.”

Neary explained that parents are currently faced with the possibility that, in seeking justice for their child and the protection of other children, they may be required to make their child’s intimate counselling notes available for the court case. This move could potential have “the devastating effect in undermining their child”, she said.

“This decision to expose the child is currently without any formal control or oversight by a judge. This is entirely unacceptable. It must be the case that only a judge makes this decision. It is unnecessary to put children and their parents through this further trauma.”

Senator Van Turnhout said: “I am acutely aware of the need to strike the proper and appropriate balance between the right of child witnesses in child sexual abuse cases to privacy as well as their right not to be re-victimised or unduly traumatised by the criminal justice system, the right of the accused to procedural fairness, and the public interest. I believe my amendment has found this balance.”

Decision should be made using a set of standards defined by law

Caroline Counihan, Legal Director of the RCNI, said they believed the decision on the admissibility of the child’s counselling notes in a particular case should only be made by a judge to a set of standards defined by law.

She explained that the amendment would mean that a judge could decide specific counselling notes are of no probative value, or that other evidence could prove a contested fact, or that the public interest in disclosure does not outweigh the potential harm to the complainant, and therefore deny that they be given either to the accused or the defence legal team.

The RCNI said they had been working with survivors, services, government agencies and legislators – including Senator Van Turnhout – on this question for an extended period, and “had also been looking at legislative provisions from other jurisdictions, such as New South Wales, as possible models which could be adapted to suit our criminal justice system.”

Read: Australian cardinal ‘absolutely sorry’ for abuse cover-up
Read: Catholic Church in Australia admits it has been slow to act on sex abuse
Read: Mother of sex abuse victim: ‘There was no one to help us’

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