The effective prosecution of rape and sexual assault is an essential element in the elimination of violence against women. Furthermore, from the victim's point of view, the way cases are handled throughout the criminal process is clearly of great importance. Many women describe their journey through the legal system as adding painfully to the trauma of the original abuse. Research shows consistently that women do not report cases of rape and sexual assault to the Garda for fear of being disbelieved, humiliated and embarrassed by inappropriate questioning, revictimised and traumatised by Garda handling of the report and through lack of confidence in the willingness or ability of the Garda to take appropriate action.
In a criminal trial for a rape offence the entire prosecution is undertaken by the State. The victim is regarded as the chief witness for the State and will be the first witness to give evidence on behalf of the State. It is possible that she, as a witness, will not have met either the solicitor or barrister representing the State and she will not have had access to the book of evidence, which contains all other evidence to be presented at the trial. She has no rights to direct what witnesses should be called.
The reality for victims in the present system is that the processing of rape and sexual assault cases through the criminal justice system exacerbates rather than alleviates the devastating effects of the crime for the victim and serves to intensify the distress experienced by the complainants, thus producing an experience of revictimisation. Complainants report feelings of disempowerment and humiliation at their treatment throughout the process and incomprehension, betrayal and anger at the appalling attrition and conviction rates in these cases.
The Rape Crisis Centre is strongly critical of the serious inadequacies of the present system which produces feelings of isolation, vulnerability and guilt in victims. It has consistently argued that in the case of rape, sexual assault and other sexual offences, the fact that the victim is not represented by her own lawyer is particularly unjust as the victim is the only party to the trial who has no voice. The particular circumstances of the crime of rape, its effect on the victim and her unique treatment throughout the criminal process must be taken fully into account.
The achievement of justice for the accused should not and need not be incompatible with justice for the victim. While it is the function of the courts to ensure the defendant's right to a fair trial, this must be balanced against the court's obligation to protect the rights of the complainant in a rape and sexual assault trial. She is entitled to be kept fully informed at every stage of the process and to be treated with respect and courtesy by all those involved from the moment the report is made to the final outcome of the trial.
Separate legal representation for complainants in rape and sexual assault cases could provide much needed support for complainants, render the trial process considerably less traumatic for them and contribute significantly to bringing about an increase in reporting rape. The Second Commission on the Status of Women also recommended that rape victims should have separate legal representation and in our manifesto we gave a commitment to introduce such representation. I hope we are moving along that road.