I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with my joint sponsors, Senators Chambers and Pauline O'Reilly.
In far too many ways our criminal justice system is a cold place for the victims of violent crimes but none more so than women. It is a very harsh system for women to navigate, especially when it comes to sexual and gender-based violence. We know the victims here are mostly women and children. Globally, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence. At home, there were 855 disclosures of sexual abuse made to Women's Aid services in 2020. That included 340 disclosures of rape. Those were right here in Ireland. The numbers are staggering. The reason they are really staggering is they are probably only a fraction of the actual figure for sexual violence and rape in the country.
Tragically, only half of the women who get to make these complaints feel they can get the help when they seek it. In short, we have a system that effectively puts our victims on trial. We have a system where a woman is expected to relive her experience of sexual assault as it is recounted in the courtroom. We have a system where the victim is required to defend her own sexual life and sexual activities prior to, and presumably since, the assault. This is all while testimonies and references in support of the accused are read out for everybody to hear. Some of those references include stories about how the abuser, acknowledged at that stage in the trial as a rapist, is a great chap altogether. The court might hear how he played for the winning team in the county finals or how he is a super team player and comes from a good local family or how he studied hard in school or volunteered for local charities, etc. Absolutely none of that matters. It is irrelevant. It does not matter how much of a diligent worker a rapist is, or if he is a gifted sportsman or cherished volunteer. It only matters that he has committed one of the most heinous crimes against women and that he is now guilty. He has been found guilty of the rape at this stage of the court proceedings and therefore he is a rapist, end of, and that is all that matters. It is high time we stopped pretending otherwise.
In drafting this Bill, my colleagues and I worked very closely with Ms Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. I genuinely thank her for her wisdom and expertise but most of all for the support she has given this Bill and the tireless work she and her colleagues give to the women and girls of Ireland. We agree character references make the process of going through a trial even more difficult and strenuous for victims of sexual crime. They are provided before sentencing as if in some way to mitigate the crime and make it easier for the offender to get a lesser sentence. I have spoken to a number of members of the legal profession, namely, barristers and solicitors, who have seen time and time again how these cases play out. They say despite the intentions of those who give character references in the courtroom, judges tend not to give them much weight, and for that I am genuinely thankful. However, under our criminal justice system character references have almost become customary in the trials of those accused of sexual and violent crimes. It is a pointless ritual that has no real effect other than to retraumatise the victim as she sits there in the courtroom listening to what a wonderful chap her rapist is and how he simply made a mistake.
We have a justice system where the accused is innocent until proven guilty and for that I am grateful. Above all, we afford certain rights should any of us find ourselves defending our good name and I grateful for that also. The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2022 does not seek to take away those rights. It is simply trying to even the playing field in respect of cases where a woman feels she is up against not just the man who has abused her and his defence team but a whole congregation of other people who may sing the praises of somebody they think they know. There have been too many instances where character references have distracted from the trials of people who have been accused of some of the most horrific crimes in Ireland. In some cases, to distract even further from the crimes, high-profile people have put in character references in an attempt to somehow embellish the character of the defendant. I am ashamed to say politicians have done it. Community leaders like GAA coaches have done it and on occasion, even our bishops have done it.
It is true we cannot stop these influential figures from providing character references in court but what we can do, and what this Bill seeks to do, is consider the victim who must sit in the courtroom and listen to these stories about the person who has caused them so much harm and emotionally scarred them. That is why the first aim of this Bill is to ensure any character references made before the court are made under oath. I hope this extra safeguard will make people take extra care and consideration when they are writing their character reference. It might even make them think twice about submitting it at all. Second, the Bill aims to make it possible for the prosecution to cross-examine any character references given in court. One cannot just say what one wants and allow it stand as being truthful. If a person is going to provide a character reference in a rape trial then it must be accurate and, more importantly, relevant to the sentencing. The evidence must be related to maybe counselling taken by the accused since the rape took place to go towards mitigation but glowing personal references going unchallenged cannot be allowed.
The aim of this Bill is to make a small but I hope meaningful dent in the enormity of the work we must do to support victims in their journey through the criminal justice system by making it less traumatic and less retriggering. What we are trying to do here is much larger than just legislative change. We are trying to change a culture in Ireland that puts victims on trial and has for far too long given our offenders an easy way out. This Bill is only part of that change but it is long overdue. I point out we have a female Minister for Justice and she has gone a long way in the last number of years to try to highlight this issue and address some of the changes. We have three Government parties that are led by women in this House. That is why it is an instructive and important sign to send out to the women of Ireland that we take this issue seriously and I hope it gives a sign of intent. I commend Senator Chambers in particular for her successful result with the stand-alone stalking and strangulation offences that were acknowledged by the Cabinet last week. For the person defending his or her name against accusations of sexual or violent crimes, having friends in high places should mean nothing in court.
Only the factual evidence should mean anything. To support organisations such as the Rape Crisis Network and Women's Aid, we need to change the culture and stop putting victims on trial. It is time to start empowering our victims and to make the path to true justice in the country easier. I commend the Bill to the House.