There was very good news on Tuesday that the contentious Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 had finally been passed by the Oireachtas. The Bill had provoked strong opposition from some of our male politicians because one of its effects is to criminalise the purchase of sex for the first time. Other important elements of the Bill did not get as much attention but in the long term will both help to prevent the sexual abuse of children and for those who are abused, will help reduce the trauma of the criminal trial.
For too long the needs of victims of sexual crimes have been ignored in the criminal justice system. Many survivors who are supported by One in Four describe the experience of being a complainant witness in a criminal trial as being the most humiliating, demeaning and traumatising event they have ever experienced. The witness is forced to recall in great detail the painful and distressing details of the sexual abuse they have suffered. In the absence of witnesses to the crime or forensic evidence, the survivor is often subjected to a deliberate attempt to undermine their credibility and their personal integrity. This is the adversarial system we have.
This will not change completely when the new Bill is signed into law. But in several important ways, new protections will be introduced.
There will be new constraints on the possibility that the survivor could be cross-examined by the accused person.
And for the first time, if the survivor has been in counselling, their counselling notes cannot be automatically obtained by the accused person and his defence team.
The presiding judge will have no powers to decide if the notes should be produced, and which sections of the notes should be allowed.
The right to privacy of the survivor and the public interest in encouraging survivors to receive psychological support without the fear of their counselling notes being read by their abuser have been strengthened.
For survivors, giving evidence about their abuse experience still remains a daunting task and there is much else to be addressed before the criminal justice system pays adequate attention to the needs of survivors. However, this is a very welcome step on the way.