I compliment Deputy O'Dea on the work he has put into the Victim Support Bill. For reasons already outlined to the House, the Government is not in a position to accept the Bill. We are currently developing a charter for victims of crime and, with that in mind, we are listening carefully to the views expressed in this debate.
Before I comment directly on the Bill, let me make one or two general observations. It is only fair to recognise that a great deal has been done in recent years to make the criminal law more victim oriented. In violent or sexual offences, there is now a statutory obligation on the courts, when sentencing an offender, to take into account the effect of the crime on the victim. As part of this process, the court must listen to any evidence the victim may wish to put forward. The court may also order an offender to pay compensation to the victim. A further recognition of the rights of victims is the power which the Director of Public Prosecutions now has, in indictable cases, to apply to the Court of Criminal Appeal to review any sentence which appears unduly lenient. This is a major advance. Few things aggravate the violation felt by victims of crime more than the belief that the punishment has not fitted the crime.
When we think of victims of crime, foremost in all our minds is the plight of children who have been sexually abused. Nothing can erase the suffering caused by this most dreadful of crimes, but we can and must ensure that our criminal justice system is sensitive to the special needs of such a vulnerable group. I especially welcome the fact that our courts are now enabled, in cases involving violence as well as sexual abuse, to hear evidence from children by live television link and to admit into evidence video recordings of statements made by children to gardaí or other competent persons.
There have been other changes to the laws of evidence in favour of victims. Children can now give evidence without taking an oath, provided the court is satisfied that they can give an intelligible account. Moreover, their unsworn evidence no longer requires corroboration as a matter of law. The law on corroboration has also been improved as regards the trial of sexual offences. Judges are no longer required to warn juries of the danger of convicting the defendant on the uncorroborated evidence of the complainant. In rape cases, the law now contains a specific measure to prevent a defendant from unfairly undermining the testimony of a rape victim by irrelevant questioning of her previous sexual experience. Rape victims, and since earlier this year incest victims, also have their anonymity protected by law.
In addition to the reform of the law, services available to victims of crime have also been developed through the good work of the Irish Association for Victim Support. I congratulate that association. Appreciation of its work has been reflected in the increase in State funding from £18,000 in 1993 to £130,000 this year. Most Deputies are familiar with the range of services provided — including listening to victims, counselling victims and giving them advice on a range of practical matters from legal aid to health service entitlements.
I will now comment on some of the principles underlying the Bill, without dwelling on drafting technicalities. One of my main concerns is that the entitlements set out in the Bill for victims of crime do not seem to have been thought through, either in terms of their practical benefit for victims or their consequences for the State. How realistic is it to require the State to immediately provide a universal and open-ended legal advice and counselling service without regard to need? Should the prosecution, as the Bill would require, have to consult a victim about every individual pre-trial procedure, even routine technical applications to court? What remedy would a victim have if this requirement was not complied with in a particular case?
This is not the only part of the Bill where questions are unanswered. Take, for example, the requirement on the Garda to provide certain information to victims of crime. It would only apply where a victim makes a written request, but how realistic is that? Will victims of crime write to the Garda specifying the categories of information under section 3 of the Bill about which they want to be told? We all agree that communication between the Garda and victims of crime is important, but I must question the practicality of the proposal in the Bill. Deputy O'Dea will argue that he is making a start in providing minimum entitlements, but entitlements, whether minimum or maximum, are of no benefit if they are not used. Another factor is that a statutory requirement of this nature tends to focus attention on compliance and, in effect, can become a standard practice rather than a minimum practice.
Another aspect of the Bill which leaves me less than convinced is the provision whereby judges could allocate part of a fine to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal. Everyone is aware of the financial difficulties which the tribunal has experienced in the past, but good progress has been made in recent times in making available the necessary resources, to the extent that delays in the payment of accepted awards have now been virtually eliminated. I doubt if this progress can be maintained and built upon by the proposal in the Bill. Such a scheme needs adequate and consistent State funding. The proposed income from fines would be completely unpredictable, depending on the number of convictions, the number of fines, the size of the fines and, not least, the extent to which judges would exercise what under the Bill is a discretionary power. That does not seem to provide a stable platform on which the tribunal could develop its services.
However, we must review the operation of the scheme of compensation for criminal injuries to see where improvements can be made. Such a review is currently being carried out in the Department of Justice in line with a commitment inA Government of Renewal. I do not pretend there are easy answers to these questions. All the issues need to be carefully considered and their implications teased out. That is what the Minister for Justice is doing in the preparation of a charter for the victims of crime, which is a commitment in A Government of Renewal. Work on this is already under way.
Shortly after I was appointed I met representatives of the National Women's Council, the Rape Crisis Centre and Women's Aid to talk about the experience of women who are victims of domestic violence. The Department is funding a study by that group, to which submissions can be sent by the public, to talk about the experience of women who are victims of particular types of crime, whether inside or outside the home. That is important.
Last week a major conference was organised by the Department of Justice and Women's Aid on the subject of domestic violence in Ireland. We looked at what has become known as the Leeds model, which is an integrated interagency approach to deal with domestic violence. Its focus is twofold — to assist the victim of domestic violence and to deal with the violent abuser. We are not just talking about victims, but about addressing the crime. That work is ongoing and will be reflected in the Department's policies.
The ongoing work with organisations such as the Rape Crisis Centre, the National Women's Council and Women's Aid is pioneering work. When I was Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare I was able to fund a primary survey on the extent of violence against women. We must find out who are the victims of crime. Some Deputies referred to unreported crimes. We deal with hospitals where people who are victims of domestic assaults attend and they tell the staff they walked into a door and the doctors or nurses may not be aware of the distinction between domestic violence and domestic accidents.
One area which must be addressed is the need to explain to victims of crime why it is not possible to proceed with prosecutions. I have tried to explain to many families why a prosecution was not proceeded with by the Director of Public Prosecutions and to explain the independent role of that office. Victims of sexual crime, particularly child sexual abuse which is often not disclosed for many years, find it difficult to handle non-prosecution, which is a result of time delays. While we may discuss support for victims of crime, the most satisfactory support is to successfully prosecute and punish the perpetrator of the crime. That should be the primary focus of our attention.