This important Bill marks a change in the approach to criminal law in Ireland, providing for the first time a comprehensive framework of statutory rights for victims of crime, and I am very pleased to present it to the House today.
Under the Bill a victim of a crime will have the right to receive information in clear and concise language on the criminal justice system and the range of services and entitlements available to him or her; the progress of the investigation and any court proceedings; and the release, including temporary release, or escape from custody of an offender who is serving a sentence of imprisonment.
Victims will also have the right to an individual assessment to establish measures that may be necessary to protect them from secondary or repeat victimisation, intimidation or retaliation; and the right to request a review of a decision by the authorities not to initiate a prosecution in their case.
Before outlining the content of the Bill in more detail I would like to provide some context for the legislation. The main purpose of the Bill is to give effect to provisions of EU Directive 2012/29/EU, establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. The EU victims' directive is largely being implemented on an administrative basis by the criminal justice agencies.
An Garda Síochána is central to dealing with victims. It is the first to receive an official report of an alleged crime, and is still with the case when a person is convicted and sent to prison. The establishment of dedicated victim service offices in every Garda division has been an important step in delivering the services victims are entitled to under the victims directive. These offices are staffed by a Garda and a civilian during office hours, making them accessible and predictable for members of the public.
An Garda Síochána has also established divisional protective service offices in three of its divisions. These are staffed by dedicated and specially trained officers to investigate cases of domestic and sexual violence. Once these units have been operating effectively and any teething problems resolved, units will be rolled out to all remaining divisions.
All the criminal justice agencies meet quarterly under the chair of my Department to review progress in implementing the directive and to resolve outstanding issues.
Support for victims of crime is provided initially by the crime victims helpline, funded by the victims of crime office in my Department. The helpline provides information on the criminal justice system, emotional support and referral, where necessary, to face-to-face support for victims of crime. In addition to its service funding, additional money has been provided from the Dormant Account Fund to allow the helpline develop cinema advertising and three short videos for victims on different aspects of the criminal justice system. This complements a range of written material online and the individual one-to-one explanations that are given over the phone by the helpline.
The vital work being done by the wide range of non-governmental organisations in continuing to provide supports to victims of crime is something which I wish to warmly acknowledge this afternoon. These organisations are providing essential support and information to victims of crime, including emotional support, court accompaniment, accompaniment to Garda interviews, accompaniment to sexual assault treatment units, counselling and referral to other services. They provide a hugely valuable source of support to people at what often can be a traumatic time in their lives.
The Government’s strong commitment to supporting this work is reflected in the programme for Government and in the allocation of €1.7 million which my Department provided to fund organisations supporting victims of crime in 2017.
I would like to outline in more detail the content of the Bill. Part 1 of the Bill contains a number of standard provisions concerning the Short Title, commencement and expenses. In addition, section 2 defines a range of terms used in the Bill. The most significant of which defines "victim" as any person "who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss, which was directly caused by an offence". This is a broad and inclusive definition which reflects the victim-centred nature of this Bill and the EU directive. The victim is not defined in relation to the offence or the offender but rather by the effect which the crime has had on him or her. The victim benefits from the rights provided under the Bill, whether or not a formal complaint is made or a suspect has been identified. Where a victim has died as a result of an offence, section 2 provides that the victim’s family members may avail of the rights provided in the Bill.
Part 2 of the Bill addresses a very important aspect of the Bill, namely, the victim’s right to information about his or her case. Section 6 sets out a wide range of information which victims must receive when they first make contact with the Garda, or in certain cases, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. Victims will be entitled to receive detailed information on the criminal justice process and the role of a victim in that process. This will include information on the procedure for making a complaint, where to direct inquiries and the circumstances in which they may be able to obtain protection measures or assistance by way of interpretation, translation, legal aid, compensation or expenses. The section provides that a victim may bring someone with them when first contacting the Garda about an offence, including a legal representative if they wish.
I have already highlighted the vital services provided to victims of crime by victim support groups. This section ensures that victims will be offered information about victim support services and may, with consent, be referred to such services.
Section 7 outlines the information which a victim will receive, if he or she wishes to receive it, to keep him or her informed of the progress of his or her case through the criminal justice process. Victims must be given information on any significant developments in the investigation, including the arrest, charging or release on bail of a suspect, and on any trial and any sentence imposed on an offender. Where an offender is imprisoned or detained as a result of the offence, the victim will be entitled to receive information from the Irish Prison Service, the Central Mental Hospital or a children detention school, in respect of any release, including temporary release, or escape from custody by the offender.
A particularly important right under section 7 is the victim’s right to be informed when a decision is made to end an investigation or not to prosecute an offender and to be given reasons for that decision. Sections 8 and 9 provide that in the case of a decision not to prosecute, the victim will be entitled to seek a review of that decision. This measure is intended to help victims to better understand the reasons that in some cases it is not always possible to get justice. Part 3 of the Bill concerns the protection of victims during investigations and criminal proceedings. Section 11 provides that the victim may be accompanied by a person of their choice, including a legal representative, when making a complaint and must receive a written acknowledgement of that complaint.
Falling victim to a crime when one is away from home can be particularly difficult and there are a number of specific rights to address the needs of victims of crime in member states other than where they live. The Bill also sets out other measures for the protection of victims during interviews and medical examinations.
This is a victim-centred Bill. As such, it focuses individually on the victim and his or her needs. Sections 14 to 18, inclusive, make provision for the assessment of victims and the implementation of protection and special measures identified by the assessment. Each victim will be individually assessed to establish any particular protection needs he or she may have and if they would benefit from any special measures during the course of the criminal proceedings. This assessment will take into account the nature and circumstances of the crime but the focus is on the personal needs of the victim.
The protection needs which may be identified include advice on personal safety and the protection of property, advice on safety orders and barring orders and applications to remand an offender in custody or to seek conditions on bail. Special measures available during an investigation may include carrying out interviews in specially adapted premises by persons specially trained, by the same person or by a person of the same sex.
The prosecutor must take the assessment report into account in determining whether to apply to the court for special measures such as allowing the victim to give evidence via live television link, through an intermediary or from behind a screen.
The Bill recognises that child victims of crime are particularly vulnerable and provides additional protections for children. In assessing the child’s needs, gardaí must have regard to the best interests of the child and must take the views of the child and his or her parents into account. They must also ensure that a child victim is accompanied by an appropriate adult during interviews and in court proceedings.
Other special measures available to victims include a power for the court to exclude the public from proceedings and to prevent unnecessary questioning regarding a victim’s private life. Under the Bill, all communications with a victim must be in simple and accessible language and take account of the victim’s ability to understand and be understood.
Part 4 amends a number of other Acts. Provisions of the Criminal Evidence Act 1992 are extended to facilitate the increased use of evidence via live television link, through an intermediary or from behind a screen. Further amendments to the 1992 Act will be introduced on Committee Stage to take account of changes introduced by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 since the publication of this Bill. The Criminal Justice Act 1993 is amended to extend the right to make victim impact statements to victims of all offences or, in certain circumstances, their family members. The Bill also amends the Courts Service Act 1998 to require the Courts Service to make arrangements for the separation of victims and their families from offenders in the course of criminal proceedings and to provide separate waiting areas for victims. In addition, several statutes are amended to ensure that a support worker may always remain in court with a victim.
Before I conclude I would like to thank all of the criminal justice agencies who have a role in providing services to victims under this Bill for their assistance in developing these proposals and implementing many of these rights on a non-statutory basis since the EU directive came into force in November 2015. I also acknowledge and thank the many victim support groups and community groups that have contributed to the development of this Bill over a number of years. Victims need to be treated with respect, courtesy and sensitivity. They need information on the criminal justice process and their role within it and they need to receive that information in a manner which they can readily understand. Victims need to have a voice in the process and they need to know that someone is listening to them. Victims also need to feel safe, to be protected from further victimisation and to receive appropriate support tailored to their individual needs.
This Bill will ensure that victims have a statutory right to have these needs met in a timely, professional and sensitive manner and I would ask Senators to support its passage through the House. I commend this Bill to the House.