Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Victims of Sexual Crime.

Helen Keogh

Ceist:

13 Ms Keogh asked the Minister for Justice the plans, if any, she has to allow for the legal representation of victims of sexual crimes; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

Liz McManus

Ceist:

62 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Justice if, in view of her recent statement that she supported the provision of separate legal representation for rape victims, she will give details of the examination she had undertaken or plans with regard to the implementation of this proposal; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 and 62 together.

In July 1993 we had a very successful conference on the issue of safety for women. During the conference the question of separate legal representation for rape victims was raised and I agreed to look at the matter. I made no secret of the fact that immediately before the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Bill was introduced in 1988, I had made representations to the then Minister for Justice advocating the inclusion of a provision allowing for separate legal representation in the Bill.

A number of measures have been introduced over the last few years to improve the position of the victim in the criminal trial process and these measures will reduce the sense of alienation and helplessness that sometimes arises. For example, procedures are now in force whereby the prosecution team arrange for pre-trial consultations with complainants in cases of serious sexual assaults to familiarise them with the legal procedures and to explain the layout and procedures of the court and the type of matters which may be the subject of examination by counsel. In 1991 the Civil Legal Aid Scheme was extended, subject to the normal conditions, to allow a complainant in cases of serious sexual assaults to consult a legal aid solicitor who may accompany the complainant into court and, of course, the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, 1990, further restricted the cross-examination of the claimant on his or her past sexual history. Under the Criminal Justice Act, 1993, the court is required, in fixing sentence, to take into account the effect of the crime on the victim and, if necessary, to hear the evidence of the victim on that aspect. That Act also enabled unduly lenient sentences in rape and other cases to be appealed by the prosecution.

These are quite significant developments and it is incumbent on us to see how they operate before we embark on a course which would, in effect, involve rejection of the advice received on the subject of separate representation both from the Law Reform Commission and the Second Commission on the Status of Women.

The Law Reform Commission recommended that there should not be any provision for separate legal representation for the complainant. They questioned the constitutional propriety of such a proposal and stated that there must also be serious uncertainty as to the effect it would have on the trial of such cases, that in some cases, far from assisting in the conviction of guilty rapists, it might so complicate the hearing and alienate the jury as to result in unjustified acquittals. This is stated in the Law Reform Commission report on rape, LRC 24-1988. The Second Commission on the Status of Women in January 1993, also looked at this matter and decided that separate legal representation for the complainant was not feasible.

I will continue to keep the situation of rape victims in criminal trials under close observation. The situation of victims appearing in our courts, in the past, was the subject of understandable public concern and if I am not satisfied that the various changes made since 1988 go far enough to assist the victim then I will certainly look at further measures, including separate representation for victims.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. The Minister mentioned victim impact evidence. Is the Minister happy that at the moment the relatives of victims can confront such victim impact evidence? For example, in a recent case evidence was presented to the court that the victims were mentally unscathed and there was no opportunity for the victims' relatives to have an input as to whether that finding by the Director of Public Prosecutions was correct.

All the changes, including the one referred to by Deputy O'Donnell, which have been made since the 1988 Act came into force are being monitored very closely in the Department because I am as concerned as Deputy O'Donnell and others about this matter. It would be wrong at this stage to go directly into separate legal representation until we have closely monitored this and have made decisions about the impact of the changes since 1988. My Department officials and I are looking at that very carefully and if it becomes clear that there are still difficulties we will look at other measures including separate legal representation.

Does the Minister agree that a finding that children who have been raped could be mentally unscathed must be a relative term and that it would be worth inquiring further into that finding?

It may well be, but it would be wrong of me to comment on a decision in relation to a specific case without having the relevant facts before me. The decisions in each of these cases are being closely monitored and if I believe on advice from my officials that there is a necessity to make further changes such changes will be made.