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Open letter from NI victim support groups

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rape trials, Northern Ireland, victim support groups, open letter, change neededCalls for an independent review of how the criminal justice system handles sexual violence cases.

Victim Support NI, along with Women’s Aid Federation NI, the Men’s Advisory Project, and Nexus NI, published a letter in the press on 17 April 2018, calling for ‘an immediate review’ of the way Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system handles cases of sexual violence.

This comes after the treatment in a recently concluded trial of a young woman who accused two men of raping her. They were acquitted.

The complainant, now aged 21, gave evidence over eight days in the witness box and was examined by Prosecutor Toby Hedworth QC and cross-examined by four of the UK’s top barristers.

The full text of the letter runs:

NOW is the time

Recent increased public interest in the criminal justice system and how victims/survivors of sexual crime are treated is to be welcomed as an opportunity to bring to light and respond to concerns that we, as organisations who work directly with and for victims/survivors of sexual crime, have held for many years.

While there have been changes within the system, driven by a greater understanding of the impact sexual crime has on individuals, there is still a considerable way to go.

As victim centred organisations we have been speaking up and speaking out about these issues for some time.

We know that one of the most hurtful and damaging experiences for victims/survivors is that they are rendered invisible and voiceless.

However unintentionally, this can happen as a consequence of the way in which the police investigation and any subsequent trial are managed.

Victims/survivors feel that they are talked about, not listened to.

Assumptions are sometimes made about their experience which are not based on any real information or knowledge.

And as we have seen, media reporting and public comment can portray victims/survivors in a light which is wholly inappropriate, with inferences and judgements which shame and blame.

We have together written to the Permanent Secretary in the Department of Justice and to the Lord Chief Justice to formally request an immediate independent review of how the criminal justice system handles sexual violence cases.

No review should be completed without victims/survivors’ voices and so we have requested that the review body should include representatives of victim centred organisations who are acutely aware of how the system is experienced by victims/survivors.

We have requested that the review take account of victim experience from reporting, through to the decision to prosecute, the court process itself and how the low level of convictions for rape and sexual violence should be addressed.

In addition, we have requested that the review consider how present processes impact negatively on victims/survivors, what new processes can be adopted, what legislative changes need to be made and how adequate and effective support for victims/survivors can be secured throughout the whole of the process.

This is a big ask but a necessary ask if the public, as well as victims/survivors, are to have confidence in the criminal justice process.

We believe there is knowledge, wisdom and the will among the criminal justice agencies to make change.

We believe now is the time to focus energy to bring those changes about.

We believe now is the time to ensure public confidence in the criminal justice system is increased.

We believe now is the time to listen carefully and well to victims/survivors of sexual violence.

We believe now is the time for a full and formal review of criminal justice processes with regard to how sexual violence cases are brought to court and prosecuted.

We believe public opinion of and confidence in the criminal justice system matters.

SO we are asking YOU the public to support that review.

If you too believe that NOW IS THE TIME for an independent review to create such change, please demonstrate your support by taking just a moment to complete our brief online survey which can be found at the link [here].

Thank you for your support.

Victim Support NI

Nexus NI

Women’s Aid Federation of NI and

Men’s Advisory Project.

Judge Patricia Smyth, who oversaw the nine-week trial of Ireland and Ulster Rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, is one of a number of senior judges now being consulted about potential legal reformson how rape trials in Northern Ireland are conducted by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan QC.

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice said he was aware of the issues raised by the recent high-profile trial.

“He has,” the spokeswoman said, “begun discussions with the trial judge and other senior Crown Court judges to consider whether there are any steps the courts can take that do not require legislation to deal with some of the issues.”

“There are a raft of changes to rape trials that could be implemented immediately if we had a justice minister, which we do not,” South Belfast MLA Clare Bailey told The Debrief recently. “In the absence of a government we need to look to Westminster.”

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