I am pleased to speak on the long-awaited Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016. With many Bills coming through the Houses in recent times, I know it is not easy for Ministers. The victim must be at the centre of all programmes, whether they involve rehabilitation or restorative justice, because many victims have been sidelined.
Reference was made to the failure to reform the courts system when we got our country back from the British. The courts system is archaic and outdated. I was down at the courts on Tuesday morning. With respect to my learned colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, to see barristers and judges in their fine robes and head gear is intimidating. The Minister should visit the courts or send her officials down to them to listen to proceedings. I was in courtroom No. 6 and we could not hear what was being said because the court was packed, with people standing everywhere. The crowd thinned out a little later.
It was impossible to hear what was being said. Justice delayed is justice denied and justice unheard is not justice at all. It is difficult to hear what the learned men and women, the justices, the clerks and so on are saying. While these people do important work in terms of serving the justice system of the State, they are in a little bubble of their own. In saying that I am not being critical of judges, but of the audio system in the courts. It needs to be upgraded to the type of system we have in this House to allow what the judges and so on are saying to be heard. I recently accompanied people to the courts in respect of a civil case. We had to rely on the interpretation of lawyers in regard to what was happening because we could not hear what was said in the court. This is a problem in most courthouses, including in my area in Tipperary. There are also judges who speak in a low voice. I cannot say that is true of myself, or that I cannot be heard. There are people who speak so low one cannot understand what they are saying, particularly people who are nervous, frightened and apprehensive during an appearance before the court which might be their first experience in that regard. That needs to be looked at too.
The main purpose of the Bill is to transpose into Irish law an EU directive establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. The adage, prevention is better than cure, is true. We all learned that from parents and grandparents. I agree that the best thing we can do for victims of crime is prevent the reoccurrence of crime. In this regard, we need to put in place a sufficiently robust Garda Force that does not fall below the recommended minimum of 13,000. The lack of Garda visibility, vehicles and equipment has been a huge problem since the recession. Gardaí have been left high and dry. This time two years ago I met a garda in a Garda station shortly after a storm. He did not have a working mobile phone or a computer on which to access PULSE. When I met him again he told me that he went home early that day because owing to a lack of resources there was nothing for him to do in the station. Many rural Garda stations have been closed. Without the necessary and up to date equipment and tools of the trade, including access to PULSE, gardaí in the stations that remain open will not be able to do their job. Many Garda stations do not even have the facilities to make a cup of tea. The health and safety interests of An Garda Síochána are not being looked after.
The Department of Justice and Equality has outlined the main rights that will flow from this Bill. We have a lot of legislation in this area. I look forward to this Bill progressing through the Houses and to engaging further on it with the Minister on Committee Stage. We regularly pass legislation with great gusto only to find at a later date that it has not been enacted or implemented. There is a failure to get our house in order and our ducks in a row in terms of having legislation enacted and implemented. It has been mentioned by others that the legislative process is too slow and that is affecting the speedy enactment of legislation. It was suggested that following First Stage of a Bill some aspects of it could be implemented or that that idea at least be explored. I am a huge believer in restorative justice. The restorative justice programme in Nenagh, north Tipperary, which operated on a pilot basis, worked very well and it needs to be expanded.
The right to receive comprehensive information on the criminal justice system and the role of An Garda Síochána within it, and the range of services and entitlements victims may access following on from their first contact with the Garda Síochána is a huge grey area. This is particularly important in the case of people traumatised by a crime, particularly sexual or domestic crime. Often this will be their first contact with An Garda Síochána and they are out of chartered waters and they are devastated and feel violated by the crime committed, particularly if it occurred in the home. The first point of contact with the Garda Síochána will be very important for them. One can wait a long time in rural Ireland to meet a garda, particularly in a non-emergency situation. It is important that a victim is given the number and name of the garda handling a case and that he or she has an opportunity to build up a relationship with that garda. However, when it comes to further contact and feedback this is often very difficult because of rostering arrangements, particularly in rural areas, because gardaí are regularly deployed to urban centres to augment shortages there. This means that if a victim contacts a Garda station the garda on duty may not know the details of a situation and he or she either has to repeat them again or wait until another time to see the relevant garda. In this regard, a victim may often be told that the garda will be on duty on, say, Monday night at 8 p.m. but then a situation arises, for example, he or she is required to be in court or is attending an incident, and the victim has to call back another time. There is no joined up thinking or appreciation of the isolation and devastation caused to victims of crime when it comes to their dealings with the State. Their first engagement is often the most vital. How they are dealt with on that occasion will either put them off further engagement or assure them they are people who will defend and support them and deal sensitively with their issues. We also need balance in terms of male and female garda numbers, so that each can swap and take over from each other where the need arises.
I too recall the work of the late Derek Nally. While there are a number of listening and support services in place they are operating on a shoestring. Many of them are run by volunteers, who I acknowledge are trained volunteers and Garda vetted, which is very important. Above all, they are qualified to listen. They may not be qualified to take appropriate actions but they are qualified to refer people to the relevant professionals. As we all know, to be ag éisteacht - to listen, is very important. Many of the people I meet - I am sure the same applies to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and others - are often better for my having listened to their story. When people are listened to and engaged with they feel more confident and they often then do not need any further help. This type of support is very important, as is the support of An Garda Síochána. As I said many of these support services are voluntary, volunteer-led and they need to be properly resourced. These groups and organisations are not sufficiently supported or recognised for what they do. I acknowledge that in many cases they cannot be recognised because their services are anonymous. There is one such service in my own village in Tipperary which provides a listening ear for older people. It is an exemplary service. I salute the volunteers who provide that service on a weekly basis. They are very understanding. As I said, these services are held behind closed doors and the staff are sufficiently trained to refer people in need of care to the right professionals. They have a very good relationship with their clients and the groups to whom they refer them. We need more supports for these services.
Another issue addressed in this Bill is the right of receipt of a written acknowledgement of the making of a complaint by a victim. One would think there would be no requirement for this to be included in this legislation. It is vital that victims are provided with a written acknowledgement of their complaint. I have had experience in this regard. I once sought the assistance of a garda at a 24-hour Garda station. I was told I had not made contact with the station even though I had done so twice and that annoyed me. I sought my telephone records from Eircom at the time and they showed that I had not made any calls to the Garda station, including on the day I first made contact with the station. Despite that this was a 24-hour Garda station, the record showed no record of a call back from the station. This happened during a time when we did not have access to mobile phones and when calls were always made from a home telephone. The records showed no telephone calls to or from my house over three days. Thankfully, two or three days later, unsolicited, the proper records arrived. While most of the information was the same they also showed a list of calls made on the three days in question. As I said, the first set showed no record of any calls having been made on the days in question. There was fun and games going on. This is not the type of game that should be upheld by the justice system. It is obvious the records were inferred with. Thankfully, as I said, the second set of records proved that I had made telephone contact with the Garda station. We all know that calls to Garda stations are recorded and have been recorded for some decades now. This is done separate from the people on either end of the call.
The written acknowledgement is very important for a victim, even if it is only so he or she can keep it in their wallet, pocket and so on. It is evidence that he or she made a complaint. The victim also has a right to be provided with information concerning the progress of the investigation and any court proceedings.
As things stand, arrangements in this regard are abysmal. In saying that, I am not criticising the Garda Síochána but the system. The whole process takes far too long and one has no idea what needs to be sent to the DPP or when to send it. In my own case, 13 statements were provided but only five actually went to the DPP's office. The other eight, incidentally, were supporting my side of the argument. That is disgusting and it should not happen. Under the current system, victims have no idea what the DPP has received or not received and the whole process is conducted under a cloud of secrecy.
The Bill includes measures for ensuring victims are updated about court proceedings. I have already said that courtrooms should be made more comfortable and more receptive to the needs of people who are, for examples, victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Indeed, I have argued on previous occasions that the proceedings in such cases should be held in another location. That location should constitute a court of law, certainly, with full access for the media and the public, but the current environment is too formal and lends itself too easily to a situation where the victim of a crime may be intimidated by the perpetrator or persons associated with the perpetrator. The Bill will provide for the right of victims to be informed of any decision not to institute a prosecution in regard to an offence committed against them and the right to request a review of that decision. As it stands, people are not given any information on the progress of a complaint and have to telephone or write to the DPP's office or ask their solicitor to find out. Where a decision is taken not to prosecute, no explanation is given of the rationale for that decision and there is no opportunity for the victim to ask questions. He or she will not be told what information was sent, or not sent, by the Garda to the DPP's office, or which, if any, information was rejected. That is a huge grey area and this Bill goes some way to address it.
The right to receive information on the temporary release or escape from custody of an offender who is serving sentence for an offence committed against the victim is a very important right. In fact, it is bizarre that such information is not already provided as a matter of course. I have spoken to people who encountered on the street the person who perpetrated a crime against them. It was very traumatic for them. For too long the well-being and concerns of the victim, the person who was violated, have not been afforded sufficient attention. We must ensure the welfare of victims is placed front and centre of the proceedings.
The Bill includes a provision on the right of victims to receive information in clear and concise language and to have access to interpretation and translation services where such are necessary. This is vital to ensure victims understand what is happening and can make themselves understood in their dealings with the criminal justice process. Solicitors usually do their best for their clients but often use legal jargon which ordinary people do not understand. Information should not just be rattled off and the victim left to take it or leave it. It is important that people understand exactly what is happening when it comes to matters of such import to their lives and well-being.
The Bill further provides that each victim will be individually assessed so that any special measure necessary to protect him or her from secondary and repeat victimisation are implemented. I alluded to this already. There should be no opportunity for intimidation of the victim, subtle or otherwise. The growth of social media and advances in technology have brought many new ways of contacting people and invading their privacy. Special measures during investigations may include advice on personal safety, including safety orders and-or barring orders, applications to remand the alleged offender in custody or seek conditions on the granting of bail, and requests that interviews be carried out in appropriate premises by specially trained persons and, in the case of sexual or gender-based violence, by a person of the same sex as the victim. I mentioned already that we now have many excellent female officers in the Garda Síochána. These types of measures should be standard practice and we must work to develop the progress that has already been made.
Provision is made in the Bill for the extension of the right to give evidence - by live television link or from behind a screen - to all victims who would benefit from such measures. This is particularly welcome. We should not oblige victims to be in the same room or otherwise physically close to the perpetrator of a crime against them, particularly where that crime is an especially heinous one. We will have to wait for the enactment of the legislation but we must up our game in this regard in the meantime.
There is a need for a broader awareness by the State and its agencies of the needs of vulnerable persons, including refugees, victims of domestic violence and the elderly. We should bear in mind, for example, the needs of those refugees who will be coming to Ireland from Syria and elsewhere in the coming months and years. Local authorities are not training their staff to deal with people in those types of traumatic and devastating circumstances. They have neither the resources not the accommodation to cope with their needs. Cuan Saor in Clonmel is a women and children refuge centre which does Trojan work on a shoestring budget. It receives very little support from the State and is largely reliant on fund-raising by the public. The staff often have to take in women and children in the dead of night who have had to be removed from their homes by the Garda. My Vulnerable Persons Bill seeks specifically to protect older people from financial abuse. There is huge evidence of that type of thing going on, where vulnerable elderly people trust somebody, often a family member, to do their business transactions for them only to have that trust abused. The situation has got much worse since the onset of the recession. It is shocking that people who are seen as a soft touch are being abused in this way. Unfortunately, my Bill seems to be stuck at the bottom of the pile and I cannot get it progressed.
I very much welcome the provision in the Bill before us this afternoon to extend the right of victims to provide a victim impact statement. Other welcome measures are those which seek to ensure the particular vulnerability of child victims is recognised. Where a specific need to protect the victim is identified, the Bill provides that a court may exclude the public from proceedings and restrict questioning regarding the victim's private life. Family law cases are often held in camera, which is important, and these measures provide further protections for children and their families.
Overall, I welcome the Bill, but I want to know when it will be enacted once it has completed its passage through the Dáil and Seanad. We need to come into the 21st century in our dealings with victims of domestic violence and sexual offences, in particular, and take measures to manage the intrusiveness of the media. I conclude by highlighting that there is a problem with the holding of inquests, which is a matter for separate legislation. Inquests should be taken out of the courtroom setting completely, particularly in the case of the traumatised family of suicide victims. Some years ago a family I knew lost a young man who took his own life by going under a train. The train driver had to come in to the inquest to give his testimony and it was very traumatic for the young man's mother and other family members. The local media reported the proceedings line by line, with all the nitty-gritty, the awfulness of what happened and the devastating consequences. Those types of inquests should be conducted in hotels or other locations with a more comfortable ambience. The court setting is totally unsuitable. As I said, there should, in addition, be some restrictions on court reporting of such cases.