'Let advocates engage in court proceedings', says Rape Crisis boss
The chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has said that the role of proposed advocates to assist alleged rape victims should involve more than accompanying vulnerable complainants to court.
Noeline Blackwell has said her organisation is interested to hear more details of a new advocate role that is under consideration by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan in the wake of the Belfast rape trial.
However, she said such an advocate should be able to engage in the court proceedings, as well as accompanying complainants to court.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre already provides a volunteer accompaniment service.
"The advocate must mean more than that. Because that happens and it's not enough," Ms Blackwell said.
Mr Flanagan's department is reviewing how rape cases are conducted here after the high-profile trial in Northern Ireland. In that case, the woman who made the complaint faced questions from four legal teams.
The case ended in the acquittal of all four defendants, including Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were found not guilty of rape.
There have been calls here for complainants in rape cases to be provided with their own legal representation.
Mr Flanagan said this was under consideration as part of the ongoing review but that it could be a "challenge" due to the nature of the legal system.
Mr Flanagan said one option under consideration is the introduction of an advocate to attend court and assist vulnerable witnesses before, during and after the trial.
He stressed that this would be different to legal representation.
A spokesperson for Mr Flanagan last night said it was "too early" to provide further details, adding "it will form part of the review" that is expected to be finished at the end of the summer.
Ms Blackwell said that, at present, the difficulty with rape complainants not having legal representation occurs particularly in cases where it's "one person's word against the other".
She said this happens in instances where consent is disputed and the defendant has at least three legal professionals involved in their representation.
Ms Blackwell said that at the moment, a complainant is "not properly represented".
At present, the alleged victim only gets legal representation in limited circumstances where they are being questioned about their sexual history.
Ms Blackwell said the volunteers that currently accompany complaints cannot participate in the court proceedings.
She said the service could potentially offer some basis for the kind of advocate Mr Flanagan is proposing but her organisation would expect the advocate to be able to play a part in court proceedings.
Ms Blackwell said the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre would like to look at Mr Flanagan's proposals, adding that the "simpler solution" may still be full legal representation for complainants.
"We are glad to see the seriousness with which Mr Flanagan is taking the need to ensure that complainants in sexual assault cases, up to and including rape, are better protected in the courts system than they are at the moment," she said.