Victims of crime find courtrooms to be intimidating, alien and strange a conference in Dublin has heard.

Opening the conference on the victims' directive, hosted by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, the Bar Council and the Law Society, Attorney General Seamus Woulfe said the goal should be to return to a more victim-centred approach in the criminal justice system.

He said initiatives like encouraging lawyers to speak in plain language would help to make the process more intelligible and less chaotic.

The conference also heard calls for the Government to urgently implement measures to help victims during criminal proceedings.

Lawyer, Maria McDonald called for a Victims' Ombudsman Office to be set up so that victims have an easy complaints procedure available to them.

She also also said the cross examination of victims often results in people being traumatised for a second time and called for measures to be introduced such as allowing vulnerable witnesses and children to bring objects like teddies with them during questioning in court.

The conference also heard from an American organisation which provides dogs to help vulnerable witnesses giving evidence in the US.

Ellen O'Neill Stephens of Courthouse Dogs Foundation told the conference how the use of courthouse dogs helped calm vulnerable witnesses and children, reduced stress and allowed them to give their evidence.

More than 180 such dogs are working in the US and Canada.

Expert group in call for 'user friendly' courts process for vulnerable victims

Meanwhile, a report from a multi-agency group of experts says the courts process should be made "user-friendly" for vulnerable victims, including victims and witnesses of sexual violence.

The group, convened by Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI), has recommended an increase in the use of pre-recorded evidence, as well as the introduction of pre-recorded cross-examination.

RCNI Legal Director Caroline Counihan said the current criminal justice system is based on the premise that face-to-face evidence in court is the best evidence that can be obtained.

However, she told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that modern psychological research does not support this and it is time for a "radical rethink".

She said: "Pre-recording a garda statement soon after a complaint has been made maximises the potential of the witness to recall, fully and accurately, what happened, to give his or her best evidence and to help minimise the risk of secondary traumatisation by reducing exposure to the adversarial criminal justice process itself."

Pre-recording cross-examinations was not, she said, about taking witnesses out of judicial supervision, but about providing a more intimate setting with proper supports available.

She said this should happen in advance of the trial and closer to the time that the events occurred, thus reducing delay and improving the quality of evidence.

In addition, she said, original statements to the authorities should be recorded, because this gave the best possible chance of the best evidence being given while reducing the risk of trauma.

Ms Counihan said she felt there is an appetite across the board for change and hoped it would happen in the near future.

The Vulnerable Witnesses Multi-Agency Group was convened by Ms Counihan and includes senior representatives from the Bar, Academia, An Garda Síochána, the Courts Services as well as a number of NGOs.

In its report, published today, the group makes 33 recommendations in all, including additional protections or "special measures" should be available to vulnerable accused persons as well as vulnerable victims and other witnesses.

Key recommendations

  • The use of pre-recorded evidence and the giving of evidence by video-link should be increased.
  • Pre-recorded cross-examination should be piloted.
  • Pre-trial hearings should be placed on a statutory footing.
  • Additional protections or "special measures" should be available to vulnerable accused persons as well as vulnerable victims and other witnesses.
  • With regard to child witnesses, specialist approaches from other jurisdictions should be further explored.
  • Professional training on facilitating vulnerable witnesses should be enhanced and funded.
  • The issue of delay should be addressed so that delays between initial complaints and any hearings are reduced as far as possible.
  • The use of professional intermediaries qualified to assist the court should be examined further; existing statutory provisions in this area should be extended to allow for answers as well as questions to be communicated via an intermediary.
  • A new Vulnerable Witnesses in Legal Proceedings Initiative should be established and led by Government, which is aimed at making the criminal justice system as accessible as possible for all vulnerable witnesses.