I am acutely aware of the particular difficulties victims of sexual offences encounter during the investigation and prosecution process.
This question concerns section 26(3A) of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, as amended, which provides for legal advice to be made available, free of contribution and without any means or merits criteria, to complainants in prosecutions for rape and certain sexual assault cases.
However, only a small number of people avail of the advice service, as opposed to the legal aid service, each year. The number of applications have been as follows: five in 2013, eight in 2014, two in 2015, six in 2016, four in 2017, one in 2018, and two so far this year.
I am aware that the provisions in the current legal aid legislation in respect of both legal advice and legal aid during prosecutions, though well intended, are somewhat limited.
A victim may be asked to make decisions at various points during the investigation or the trial with far-reaching consequences while they are very vulnerable. In many cases they will be emotionally traumatised, upset or in a very fragile and difficult position.
The low demand for the advice service may reflect a low awareness of its availability or the fact that it is only available once a prosecution has actually been commenced. It is not available to a person who may be reporting an alleged offence to An Garda Síochána or where a decision not to prosecute the alleged offence is taken.
The service is advertised on the Legal Aid Board website and is on the Garda Síochána website, among other places. There is no automatic referral to the service, and the complainant must apply to a law centre for the service. Applications may also be made online.
I have asked an expert group chaired by Professor Tom O'Malley of National University of Ireland Galway to examine this matter carefully and to bring forward recommendations that will help protect vulnerable witnesses and help ensure they can deliver the best possible evidence in a court situation. That group is due to publish its report before the end of this year.