Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill 2019: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981 (as amended) to enable complainants to be heard and legally represented in relation to applications to adduce evidence about the clothing worn by a complainant at the time of the alleged offence; to amend the provisions in respect of previous sexual history evidence and to provide for related matters.

Táim ag roinnt mo chuid ama le Teachta Martin Kenny. Approximately 12 months ago, it was reported that in a rape case in Cork, the defence lawyers introduced as evidence a lace thong belonging to a 17 year old complainant. It was an appalling and indefensible strategy that clearly implied that the victim was in some way responsible or to blame. The dreadful approach taken by the defence team in this case rightly drew criticism here and internationally. It was discussed in the Dáil when Deputy Coppinger brought the issue up. She quoted the barrister, who said:

Does the evidence out-rule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and open to meeting someone and being with someone? You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.

This was an appalling commentary and it was of no evidential value. Ultimately, it was an extremely cynical strategy.

It was clear to me and to Deputy Martin Kenny as a consequence of this that there are not adequate protections for victims of rape and sexual offences to prevent this kind of behaviour, which has no evidential value. We have tried to fix this clear failing in the law. The legislation we are bringing forward tackles the use of references to clothing of the complainant in sexual offences trials. It would also ensure that there are greater safeguards to sexual history evidence being introduced. The manner in which this will work is that where it is sought to introduce clothing evidence, the defendant must make an application to the judge, who would have a hearing without the jury but with the legal representatives of the defence, the prosecution and, crucially, legal representation for the complainant, before deciding whether it would be admitted. This procedure exists in respect of sexual history. It could only be admitted if it was the case that it would not be possible for the defendant to have a fair trial without it being introduced. It is a very reasonable and sensible Bill. The other reform it introduces is that the complainant would be represented in any hearings on admissibility. That is not currently the case.

There was no evidential value for the introduction of that evidence at the time. It was a form of victim blaming, which caused disgust in Ireland and throughout the world. We need to ensure that where evidence is introduced such as clothing or sexual history, it is done in a way that is relevant to the case and that there are safeguards. We need to ensure that it is not introduced in such a way as to impugn or shame the complainant or in a way that has no evidential value. This legislation has great value and will improve the conduct of sexual offences trials in this jurisdiction.

This Bill is warranted in the context of so many young women who fall foul of sexual violence and sexual attack and do not come forward. Very often, they do not come forward because of what they read in the newspapers and because of the atmosphere around all of that. They see these trials as a re-victimisation of the person and a degradation of their humanity. That is what happens in many cases when we have this type of aggressive cross-examination. The introduction of clothing in that manner, in that particular case and in others, has shone a bright light on the situation. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire pointed out, the Bill is about dealing with this specific aspect. If we deal with that aspect, we will have the opportunity to reassure people that the State is on the side of the victim and that we are not just allowing this type of situation to continue as it has for so long. Many women whom I have spoken to and I am sure many of us in this House have spoken to have been traumatised by what has happened to them and to their friends and colleagues in the past. It would be an appropriate step for this House to bring this Bill forward along with more legislation that I am sure is badly needed in this area.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.