That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 by affording relevant information and legal advice to victims of alleged offences involving sexual violence, gender based violence or violence in a close relationship and to provide for related matters.
The purpose of this legislation is to give greater support and protection to victims of sexual violence, gender-based violence or violence in a close relationship. To understand the purpose and benefit of the legislation, we have to be aware that it is unfortunately the case that sexual offences in Ireland are on the increase. Yesterday, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, published its recorded crime figures for the first quarter of 2018. Regrettably, those figures indicated that there was a 14.7% increase in sexual offences in the first quarter of this year compared to the first quarter of the previous year. The figures highlight, in particular, that 181 rapes were recorded in Ireland in the first quarter of the year, which is a worrying increase. When the CSO figures for the final quarter of 2017 were examined and published three or four months ago, there was a 16.9% increase in sexual offences, with a 28.2% increase in rapes of a male or female.
The significant increase in sexual offences may be due to one of two reasons. First, it could be because of public awareness, public information and public confidence. People are becoming more willing to make complaints and to have sexual offences against them recorded. That is one possible explanation. Regrettably, there is another equally valid explanation, which is that sexual offences are significantly on the increase. It would not be surprising if it was so when we consider the prevalence of pornography on the Internet and the extent to which young men, in particular, seem to be learning about sexuality from pornography on the Internet, which presents women in a very submissive and malleable form.
We need to be conscious of the fact that sexual offences are on the increase, and it is in that context that this legislation is important. The purpose of the legislation is to provide support to victims of sexual violence and gender-based violence in circumstances where they make a complaint to An Garda Síochána. Many people who have been through a court process where they have been the complainant in a rape or sexual offence trial state afterwards that they found the experience difficult, harrowing and surprising. Part of the reason for that is the lack of information provided to complainants in the early stages of a criminal investigation. The legislation will amend section 17 of the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 so that where a victim of sexual violence makes a complaint, they will be provided with relevant information and legal advice by a solicitor funded by the Minister, advising him or her of the process involved and the actions required for criminal proceedings in respect of the alleged offence to be brought and heard.
In practical terms, that means that complainant will have the opportunity to be advised by a solicitor at the earliest stage, first, on what the Garda investigation will involve and, second, on what the pre-trial process will involve. They need to be informed that all the evidence accumulated will be provided to the accused. Third, and most important, they need to be advised of the fact that for the prosecution to be maintained and to succeed the complainant will be required to give evidence and face cross-examination in respect of the allegation he or she has made. There is protection on our Statute Book, which provides for separate legal representation to a complainant in a rape or sexual offence trial. The complainant under this legislation will also be informed of that.
The legislation would be beneficial. Somebody accused of rape or sexual offences has the State-funded protection of the free legal aid scheme from an early stage. We should provide victims of sexual offences with similar forms of advice. It would not be an expensive process. It would be most appropriate if it was conducted through the parameters of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland. It would also be beneficial to the criminal justice system. Most important, it would be beneficial to the victims of sexual violence, gender-based violence and violence in a close relationship.