Marita Moloney
Marita Moloney

12.21 10 Apr 2021


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The National Women's Council is calling for the submission of character references in sexual assault trials to be abolished.

Currently, they can be handed into court ahead of sentencing.

It comes as the Minister for Justice is meeting victims of sexual violence to discuss their experiences in the criminal justice system.

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Helen McEntee is reviewing the system ahead of a new Sexual Offences Bill which is due to be published by the end of the year.

Orla O'Connor, Director of the National Women's Council, believes character references are hugely damaging to the victim.

She told Newstalk Breakfast with Susan Keogh that they have no place in sentencing hearings for sexual offences.

"It's very unclear how these character references are actually used by judges, but in our view, there is simply no place for them," she said.

Character references should 'have absolutely no place' in rape trials, says women's council

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"They come in at a point after the person has been found guilty and they're meant to be a part of of the thought process with regard to sentencing.

"At the moment, there aren't guidelines with regard to what credit does the judge give with regard to sentencing, and those character references are part of that.

"So in our view, they have absolutely no place."

Ms O'Connor said it was worth noting that those references are read out in court after a survivor has gone through the whole process from reporting the incident to enduring the trial.

"At the end of that enormously difficult and traumatic process, to have to hear from so-called respectable people from your community to come forward to speak of this person's good character must be absolutely devastating.

She added that Minister McEntee's review of the criminal justice system with regard to sexual violence should include measures to remove character references from proceedings.

"It's so important in terms of the victim, but it's also so important in terms of the message that gets out because I think for many who have experienced sexual assault, who have experienced sexual violence or rape, contemplating coming forward knowing that that is also part of what could happen, is a really negative factor," Ms O'Connor said.

"I think there is very little argument for keeping them because it is also very unclear what actual impact they have within the sentencing system.

"We certainly know the impact they have on victims and we will certainly be campaigning to have them removed and I would say there's a good prospect of that happening."

The issue is that there are no established guidelines for how credit for good character works in sentencing, she stated.

"There is precedence in making the sentence longer but there isn't in terms of this area of credit being given that makes the sentence less, and that is one of the issues that need to be addressed," she said.

"And within that, there is the issue of character references.

"But what I would say is what needs to be taken into account there is the impact on the victim because it is enormous and it is devastating and it is also sending that wider message out that we're not considering sexual violence as serious as the impact it has on women, on people and on society."

If you have been affected by any issues raised in this article, you can contact the National Women's Council here or the Rape Crisis Network here.

Main image: File photo.

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Character References Character References Rape Trials Helen McEntee National Women's Council Sexual Offences

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