I thank the Cathaoirleach for inviting me. I am delighted to be here on behalf of the committee to share a flavour of our report and give an update on this important report. I want to acknowledge the work of the Cathaoirleach, Senator Daly, in the innovation of bringing forward these types of sessions. This is something that the Seanad, as a strong second Chamber, can excel in. As someone who campaigned for the retention of this forum a number of years ago for exactly this purpose, I am delighted to see it being ventilated and used for significant probing of legislation, holding Oireachtas committees and the Government accountable and putting us on notice in these types of exercises. It is a worthwhile initiative and I commend the Cathaoirleach and the House on taking it on. I am delighted to be perhaps the first committee Chairman to come before the House in this regard.
The joint committee is answerable to the Oireachtas as opposed to the Government through the separation of powers. My duty is the Dáil and Seanad and, of course, to the people who are sovereign. While I am a member of a Government party, and very proudly so, I chair the committee in an impartial way and the committee does its work independent of any party persuasion. We do it as comprehensively and impartially as we can. I think that we work well together. I want to recognise Senators Gallagher, Ward, Ruane, Martin and McDowell who are members of the committee and I thank them for their contributions not just to this report but to all the many reports and exercises that we have performed.
The Joint Committee on Justice, as its name would imply, is law heavy. We have the greatest workload before us than any other committee in the Oireachtas. Up to Christmas, we had a boast that we processed more legislation than all the other committees put together. That it is a function of our productivity, and I thank the members for that, but also the nature of the work that comes before us. The one thing that we were very keen to do at the outset, was not allow ourselves to become enslaved by legislation and to become reactive, but that we would actually initiative our own reports. One in four of our meetings does that. They are part of what we call elective modules of which this was one. It may have been the first one that we took on since the committee was put in place because we felt the importance of the topic was such that it should be the first elective module. We took it on to study in that way. Other modules that we have considered include policing during Covid, and whether civil liberties have been balanced correctly and whether the right balance has been struck, and we considered GDPR and made some important recommendations on the Irish data protection regime, which impacts onto Europe. That is something that we might discuss here on another occasion. We considered the system of courts and court houses in Ireland and our next meeting will consider the engagement of minority communities with the justice system.
Today we are discussing the report on the testimony of victims in cases of rape and sexual assault and how those victims have often been re-traumatised and had to relive their ordeal by going before an adversarial court system. One reason we sought to prioritise this was the O'Malley report, an academic report published shortly before the committee was convened, which made findings on these cases. There was also the statistic, which my good friend and colleague, Senator Chambers mentioned, that only 10% of sexual assault or rape cases are currently reported and between 8% to 10% of those actually secure conviction. Therefore, only on average one in ten cases are reported to the Garda or prosecution authorities and of those one in ten, only one in ten is securing a conviction. Only one in 100 cases ends up in court with a conviction.
There is obviously a significant difficulty with that if somebody is defiled in such a way but they do not see justice done at the end of the process. That said, it is a difficult issue because we also have canons of law dating back centuries, not just in this jurisdiction but internationally, which say that the presumption of innocence applies. That is a very important principle of the common law and the criminal law. Awful as it must be to be a victim of an assault or crime of this nature, it is also awful for somebody to be wrongly accused, put in the box and charged with this offence if that person was not in fact guilty and it was a case of mistaken identity. I often say to people that they could be put in the box although they know they did not do it because they were not there, or perhaps they were, but the facts were a little different from what had been alleged. Unfortunately, these things also happen. It is important that we have a system of checks and balances. That goes into some of the issues around testimony. There was some suggestion, for example, that victims would not have to give evidence. It is a principle of the law that people can challenge their accuser. Those principles are set in stone also for good reason, so there are difficulties around that.
That said, we had comprehensive engagement and some very strong submissions. We had representatives of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, Men's Aid, One in Four, the Bar of Ireland and the Department of Justice before the committee and they made very strong representations and gave testimony, as they always do. One of the points that came up was the difficulty that arises when victims have to go back into a courtroom. People talk about retraumatising. Victims have already suffered an horrendous ordeal and then six, 12, 18, 24 or 36 months later, they have to re-enter a courtroom and may have to go toe to toe with and encounter their accuser if evidence is given live. They may have to do that a number of times if the case is listed, re-listed, adjourned and re-adjourned.
To my mind, the most important finding from the report, although it may be a less intuitive or obvious one, is that we clearly need more judges. This was a factor in a number of reports. We need more judges at every court level in this country, including the criminal courts system. It is difficult enough for victims to build themselves up and step into a courtroom. They may not sleep for a few nights in advance and may get a family member or friend to accompany them, only to be told on the steps of the court three hours later that the case has been put back for a month or six months. The reason for that is usually that a judge was not available and the list was too busy on the day. The committee, across the board, found a number of times that we need more judges in many areas. The per capita comparison across Europe and elsewhere suggests we are below where we need to be in that regard.
I was a little disappointed by the Government's response to our report in that regard. I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say later. I was disappointed by the remarks from the Government on judges' salaries when judicial appointments were discussed recently. The appointment of a judge means the appointment of a court, which will sit every day through the legal year. That judges happen to be well remunerated is a separate issue. It is unfortunate at times that the debate moved into that area.
The next recommendation we considered was that, in general, we take a victim-centred approach and consider a place for the victim. There is currently some level of representation for victims in a court scenario in circumstances where we have an advocate to assist. In certain specialist cases, such as the question of previous sexual history, the joint committee recommended that this representation be extended across the board so that there is a legal team in place for the accused. The person in the box who has been charged with the crime has a legal team and there is a legal team for the prosecution, that is, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chief State Solicitor, but victims find their own way. They may have a friendly garda or a family member to accompany them but there is no formal procedure in place to engage with them. Sometimes, if they are not in court, they may be waiting at the end of a phone or relying on a text or call from a friendly garda who may or may not get in touch to ask how everything went on the day and outline what will happen the following day. We have recommended that there be formal legal representation to guide victims through the process and, where necessary, to advocate for them in the courtroom. This representation should be on a par with the prosecution and the defence.
We touched on specialist training for legal teams and witnesses giving evidence. That has already been rolled out in part by the Bar Council and others and it needs to continue. One of the few pluses from Covid is the adoption of remote systems. There was already some provision for remote evidence to be taken in these types of cases and that has been accelerated because of Covid. Advances have been made in technology in the courts, but we need to double down on that. Many courtrooms still do not have proper facilities, audio recordings, video footage, etc. This is an obvious thing to do in cases where persons do not want to be in the same room as persons who they allege defiled them. They can contribute by video link, take questions and the jury can still assess their evidence but they are not physically in the same room. That needs to be rolled out faster and better.
There is an argument for what we call familiarisation, where someone holds the person's hand on the way in and points out where the jury sits, where the dock is, how the system works and engages in those types of conversations.
Senator Chambers touched on the subject of sexual education in the classroom, RSE in the early days, its more recent incarnations and the topic of consent. I hope we can all agree that such examples are fundamentally needed in the education system so that people know what is right and wrong when they are going out. In this day and age, there is no excuse for any confusion over that, but it should be included in the curriculum.
We talked about rolling out the use of video. We had representatives of Men's Aid before the committee who highlighted that this is not a gender-specific issue. Traditionally, women have suffered more, but men are not immune either. We had some impassioned and moving testimony from Men's Aid, which was very useful. We were delighted to take that on board.
The statistics can be a little bit misleading in the sense that a case can be struck out or not go to trial. Different pleas can be made and different issues taken into consideration. The joint committee recommended that statistics be carefully collated so that it is apparent at the end of the year what exactly has happened, which cases have gone to trial and which have not and where this information sits in the wider set of figures so that we can make sense of the statistics.
I look forward to the debate. We have a set of recommendations to be put to the Government. Some are being actioned and some are not. I ask the Government to progress the remaining actions with the rapidity and urgency they deserve, in particular, and the adoption of video links across courtrooms, the further roll-out of specialist training and advocacy for victims in a courtroom, as well as for the prosecution and defence. Above all, and this applies not just to this report but across the board, we need more judges, simpliciter, so that people have their day in court on the day they expect to have it and their case is not held up, delayed or adjourned multiple times. Justice delayed is justice denied. That was probably our principal finding.
A Chathaoirligh, I again thank you for the invitation. I look forward to the debate. If possible, I will make some closing remarks and respond to any points or questions made by Senators. I look forward to hearing their views and thank them for hosting me.