Ireland’s sexual crimes prosecution system is so dramatically tipped in favour of the accused, it is “a wonder anyone is ever found guilty”, according to a survivor and solicitor.
Sarah Grace was speaking after the Government pledged to draw up a new national strategy for tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
The strategy will seek to address the findings of a new independent audit that found a lack of coordination between Government departments on gender-based violence.
It noted that the disconnection was causing distrust, disrespect, othering and blame between the Government, NGOs and other agencies.
Serious sexual assault
On The Pat Kenny Show this morning, solicitor Sarah Grace said she was shocked at the way she was treated by the courts after she was violently sexually assaulted.
“Two years ago, almost to the day, my flat was broken into one night by a burglar,” she said. “He came in through my bedroom window – I was fast asleep.
“I woke up with him on top of me strangling me and there was a very violent fight that ensued. It was attempted murder really.
“Luckily, I managed to fight him off and escape but I was very seriously sexually assaulted.
“He was caught fairly quickly afterwards and in March of this year he was sentenced to ten years for aggravated sexual assault.”
She said she went public about the experience because, “I actually found the way I was treated by the Irish criminal justice system was more traumatic to me than the attack itself – and that is saying something.”
“A lot of survivors got in touch with me afterwards and echoed similar views about their own experiences in the courts and it is just something we need urgent reform of and a real overhaul of our laws,” she said.
The 29-year-old said she found the prosecution process “impossible to navigate” even with her legal background.
She has written an open letter to the Justice Minister outlining her concerns.
“Our criminal justice system is just Dickensian,” she said. “It is designed to make survivors jump through a shocking number of hoops before we even get to trial – and as we all know the battle is far from won when you get to trial.
“I am all for a fair trial and due process - I am a lawyer; I understand the importance of the accused rights - but the scales are so dramatically tipped in the accused favour it is a wonder anyone is ever found guilty.”
She said the part she found “most shocking by far” was the defence’s ability to use a survivor’s therapy and mental health records against them.
“For those people who don’t know, a rape or sexual violence victim’s therapy notes will be taken and disclosed in evidence at trial,” she said.
“The sole purpose of that evidence is to discredit the victim – it is not to back up what you are saying at all; they are trying to find some discrepancy in your notes.
“I didn’t know about this when I went to therapy. It was announced to me about four or five months deep into therapy and I was told yes, I could refuse the release of these notes but all that will do is delay the trial because the judge will ultimately force the release anyway.”
"Private, intimate thoughts"
She said the rule will be particularly upsetting for people who know their attacker personally – as most survivors do.
“You just don’t want the assaulter to know how he has made you feel and he gets to read that,” she said. “And it is not just him or her; it is his entire defence team, the entire prosecution team and the judge.
“It is your most private, intimate thoughts. You think you are in a confidential setting, you are opening up about the most harrowing trauma that has happened to you and you are just trying to pick up the pieces and move on.
“Then it is told to you that the person who did this to you is going to get to read all of this and it is going to be used against you – that is the worst of all of this.”
She noted that the counselling records of the accused are strictly off-limits in the trial.
“What baffles me about all of this is, why are we affording rights to the accused that we are not reciprocating for the highly vulnerable victims?
“That just doesn’t make sense to me and it is a huge deterrent to people seeking justice.
“What happens is survivors will either not get therapy and delay for years to make sure those notes won’t be used against them or they just won’t prosecute.”
'Complete double standards'
She said the defence can also dig into the survivor’s sexual past in certain cases.
“As if that proves something,” she said. “This completely unrelated incident.
“You can’t do that for the accused. You can’t bring up past offences or past crimes that have been committed.
“You can’t bring up all these things about the accused but you can bring up the victim’s sexual past and the accused also can have a positive character reference and the victim can’t.
“There are complete double standards that women should be virtuous or they are asking for it – it is primitive.”
Ms Grace said Ireland must introduce ‘rape shield’ laws similar to those in force in Australia and the US – where it is “absolutely forbidden to ask a victim about his or her or their sexual past.”
Main image shows solicitor and sexual assault survivor Sarah Grace. Image: Alison Grace
Anyone affected by any of the issues raised in this article can contact the Rape Crisis Network’s 24-hour helpline on 1800 77 88 88.