The Belfast rape trial is over and “not guilty” verdicts have been returned on all counts against the accused. But the troubling issues raised by the trial have in no way been resolved. Because the trial took place in another jurisdiction, there was unprecedented, detailed coverage of the day to day trial process and of the evidence given by all the parties. This gave Irish people south of the border a unique insight into the way in which trials for sexual offences are conducted. While there are some legal differences between the two jurisdictions, the Belfast scenario is, in essence, re-enacted every day in rape trials at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin.
Trials for sexual offences are different from other trials. Very often there is no forensic evidence and there are rarely any witnesses. Frequently the accused person admits that sex took place, but denies that it was not consensual. Everything hinges on the credibility of the complainant’s evidence. Defence barristers know this and will use cross-examination to challenge the complainant’s account. But they will also challenge the complainant’s behaviour, character and history in an effort to undermine the reliability of their version of events in the eyes of the jurors. In no other type criminal trial is there an attempt to denigrate the complainant in this way.
At One in Four, we support adults who were sexually abused in childhood, and difficulties in proving the crime are exacerbated by the passage of time. But the same dynamics operate during the trial, and our clients regularly describe their experience in court as traumatising and de-humanising. Is it any wonder that so few victims of sexual crime ever make a complaint to Gardaí?
In a criminal trial, the burden of proof is very high – beyond a reasonable doubt. If any of us were ever accused of a crime, we would all want this level of proof to apply. However, in the case of sexual crimes this level of proof is often impossible to attain. Juries have to make decisions based on the evidence before them but can sometimes mean that “not guilty” does not mean that the victim has lied.