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Dr Susan Leahy said EU directives supporting victims of crime have made an impact on society. Alamy Stock Photo
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'It's very different being a victim of crime now to what it was 10 years ago'

Criminal law expert notes EU directive’s massive impact – but says Ireland is still only doing the minimum to support victims.

THE EUROPEAN UNION has ushered in change for how victims of crime in Ireland can expect to be treated and supported, according to a criminal justice expert.

Dr Susan Leahy, speaking this week at a joint event between The Journal and University of Limerick noted the impact that the EU Victims’ Rights Directive 2012 has had on Ireland’s approach to providing support for victims through the implementation of the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017.

Leahy, who is a senior lecturer in Law and the Director for Crime, Justice and Victim Studies at UL, said: “I don’t think the changes that have come for victims of crime in Ireland would have come certainly as quickly as they did if we didn’t have that directive.

There was a lot of will there for a long time in the victims’ rights space, but we had nothing concrete to force the government’s hand.”

The 2017 legislation has served to confer legally enforceable rights for victims of crime, specifically in relation to support and protection. This enables victims to access pertinent information about the justice system and avail of tailored support services.

The act also allows a victim to be kept informed about any court proceedings, as well as an assessment of their protection needs which may require measures to prevent further intimidation of victims.

“It’s very different being a victim of crime now to what it was 10 years ago, and that’s because of the European Victims’ Directive. That’s not because there was any lack of will here in this jurisdiction or lack of will on behalf of the stakeholders, but we needed that catalyst, that impetus that came from the Victims’ Directive.”

Leahy also made reference to the fact that despite the significant strides which have been made in Irish law since the enforcement of the directive, there is much more to be done in relation to victims’ support.

The directive is about setting minimum standards, so even if we did everything the directive asked us to do, we’re still only doing what is the minimum to support victims of crime in our jurisdiction…We still have a long way to go.”

In July 2023, the European Commission announced a proposal to strengthen the current rights for victims of crime established by the existing Victims’ Rights Directive.

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Some of these proposed amendments include the introduction of free psychological support for vulnerable victims for as long as is required, as well as the establishment of an EU-wide victims’ helpline number and website that would enable access to support via online chat and email services.

Furthermore, the proposal aims to ensure effective access to compensation immediately after a judgement by requiring the state to directly pay the compensation to the victim and seek subsequent reimbursement from the offender.

Before this proposed directive can take effect in the Member States, it must be approved by both the European Parliament and the Council, and once adopted, Member States will have two years to transpose it into national law.

Reflecting on additional changes to Irish law since the victims’ directive, Dr Leahy praised the subsequent enactment of the Domestic Violence Act 2018, which served to ratify the Istanbul Convention, and notably introduced the offence of ‘coercive control’ to Irish law.

Other developments include the amendment of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act in 2023, which now lists stalking as a standalone criminal offence and also implements harsher mandatory sentencing for various offences largely associated with domestic violence.

Not sufficiently addressed

The extension of mandatory sentencing in relation to such offences had been a talking point for some time prior to the enactment of this legislation, and a subsequent report released by independent organisation “GREVIO” found that Ireland’s lenient sentences and suspended or conditional sentences suggested that acts of violence against women are considered offences of “lower social danger”.

It was also noted that policies and support services have overlooked or not sufficiently addressed some serious forms of violence against women.

In relation to the question of sentencing, Dr Leahy acknowledged the adverse effects that lenient sentencing has on victims but emphasised the necessity of prioritising the treatment of the victim during their engagement with the courts’ system as the area of prime concern.

“I think for your average victim, what is most important for them is that they get heard, they get treated well, and they come out of the process, not being utterly battered and bruised by it… If you are a victim and you do see that perpetrator convicted and getting a sentence that you feel represents the harm that’s happened to you, but if you are left so bruised by the process, that it even almost wasn’t worth going through it, that can be discouraging for people.”

Despite the explicit shortcomings in relation to the rights of victims, Dr Leahy expressed an overall commendation for the encouraging developments that have taken place in Ireland in recent years, both from a legislative perspective and societally.

“What I think can be encouraging for people is that our landscape has completely shifted, that I think you can come forward now thinking that you will be believed in knowing that you will be believed that there will be recourse.”

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This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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