Ireland

Garda taking too long to set up unit to investigate sex crimes, says expert group

Report calls on Garda to set up sex crime units in all divisions as a matter of urgency

Paddy Jackson (left) and Stuart Olding: The expert group was established in August 2018, shortly after rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of raping a woman at a house party in Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/ PA Wire

Paddy Jackson (left) and Stuart Olding: The expert group was established in August 2018, shortly after rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of raping a woman at a house party in Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/ PA Wire

The Government has been advised by an expert group on sex crime investigation and prosecution that it is taking too long for the Garda to establish long-promised specialist units to investigate such crimes.

More units need to be rolled out immediately, the administration has been told.

While the first Divisional Protective Services Units (DPSUs) – planned for all 28 Garda divisions for the specialist investigation of sexual crimes – was launched in 2017, several Garda divisions were still not catered for, the report said.

It was now imperative that all units become operational as a “matter of urgency”.

The group, chaired by senior counsel and legal academic Tom O’Malley, was established by former minister for justice Charlie Flanagan in August 2018, shortly after rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of raping a woman at a house party in Belfast.

The report notes that at the conclusion of the 42-day Belfast trial, concerns arose about the conduct of such trials, including the treatment of complainants, on both sides of the Border.

However, it concludes that had the Belfast trial taken place in the Republic, some of the issues of concern that arose in the North could not have arisen because the public were allowed into rape trials in Northern Ireland but not south of the Border.

It added that because of the “legal protections” in place in the Republic it was “most improbable that a complainant’s identity would become known by informal means, as was alleged to have happened during the Northern Ireland trial”.

The group has decided against recommending substantive changes in a number of areas that have often proven contentious when rape, and other sex crime, trials were conducted.

The report, titled Review of Protections for Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Offences, says complainants should not have their own legal representation during trials.

Such trials were a “binary” process between the prosecution and defence that must be balanced fairly.

“The introduction of separate legal representation for one category of witness throughout the entire trial would risk upsetting that well-established balance,” the group concludes.

While some victims in sex crime cases have been cross-examined about personal issues in court – including the underwear they were wearing at the time they were attacked or their previous sexual encounters – the group decided against recommending any major changes that would limit such lines of questioning.

“An outright ban on such questioning could create the risk of an occasional miscarriage of justice and would, therefore, be unacceptable,” the group says in its report to Government.

Anonymity

It added that during trials in all but very few sex crime cases – such as possessing child pornography or paying for sex – suspects should be granted anonymity unless and until they were convicted.

The stigma of being charged largely remained even in the event of an acquittal.

Avoiding this stigma for people never convicted outweighed any suggestion that by naming all accused persons, any other victims they may have targeted would come forward and make complaints against them.

It added the legal definition of banning the “publishing” or “broadcasting” of details that identified suspects or victims should be changed to include posts by the public on social media.

Furthermore, it added protocols were required for gardaí when they were gathering data from the phones of complainants in sex crime cases.

Much of the information on mobile phones and information sent and received by messaging apps was deeply personal and was not relevant to the investigations under way.

The group noted while dedicated interview suites were in place at locations across the country where gardaí could interview sex crime victims and vulnerable witnesses, some regions of the country had no such suites.

“Many victims may find it difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to travel long distances in order to avail themselves of this special facility,” the report said, adding large numbers of gardaí still had little or no training in dealing with victims, saying Garda management needed to address that situation.

It was also imperative that the locations of sex assault interview suites were kept secret, as people who knew what the building was used for could see victims walking into it.

The interview suites and the services provided there should be reviewed by an independent agency.

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