A review of protections for victims of sexual offences recognises how such offences are different from other crimes, the Chief Executive of the Rape Crisis Centre has said.

Noeline Blackwell said the victim of a sexual offence is entitled to have a hearing that allows them to tell their account accurately and fairly without being re-traumatised.

A working group was set up to review legislation here following a high-profile trial in Northern Ireland in 2018.

Among the recommendations of the group, which were published in a report today, all victims of sexual offences should have the opportunity to receive free legal advice.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Ms Blackwell said information and support are key areas identified in the report that need to be implemented quickly.

She said "the loneliest person" on the journey to prosecution for a sexual offence is the victim, who is often left lacking in support, information and basic legal advice.

She welcomed the proposals to establish a clear pathway before a case is set down for hearing, "so that when it comes to hearing, somebody will get heard on the day" and that anonymity will be granted in respect of all sexual assault cases.

Ms Blackwell said pre-trial applications discussing the complainants' sexual history are important to ensure that a complainant is not hit by an application that is "disconcerting at the very least, and horrifying to say the most" at the last minute.

The Minister for Justice said she hopes to move quickly on some of the recommendations contained in the report, particularly around the areas of consent and preliminary trial hearings.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Helen McEntee said it is important that victims of a sexual crime know they will be heard and treated with respect and dignity and know what information and supports are available.

She said we need to get to a point where someone who commits a sexual crime knows that they will be reported, investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The minister said one of the concerns relayed by victim support groups is the delay in getting to trial and preliminary trial hearings would address a lot of concerns and agree a lot of areas before any case gets to trial.

She said a clear implementation plan will be put in place over the next ten weeks, taking on board the recommendations, the views of victims' groups, NGOs, the legal profession and the judiciary.

She said she hopes to engage with Legal Aid Board on a system victim of a sexual crime can have access to legal advice which has been pulled together in a single portal.

The minister said that one recommendation she will act on immediately, along with the Minister for Higher Education, is the recommendation around education, particularly consent and not just in schools and universities but on a more general basis.

The Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Network said the new recommendations will "empower survivors" with information and give them the support they need.

Clíona Saidléar said the report shows a "call for radical change" around how sexual violence is dealt with and preliminary trial hearings will mean delays will be curtailed.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sarah McInerney, she said: "What survivors experience is a start and stop approach. So they finally get a date, they turn up to court, there is a five minute conversation between lawyers and they are off home again and a new date will be set. And that can happen a few times coming up to a trial.

"So what the pretrial hearing is going to do is hopefully eliminate almost all of that."

On the issue of anonymity, she said they are not disappointed with this recommendation as on balance they would agree from the point of view of the survivor and the decision they make to involve themselves in the justice process  "the safer we can make this space the better."

Ms Saidléar also said that one of the big changes is the extension of some of the work they have done around rape trials to cover sexual assault, "to regularise and stablise the processes around sexual assault".

 "In terms of sexual harassment, these are crimes. Groping is a sexual assault, that is a crime," she said.


Rape Crisis Centre - (24 hrs) 1800 77 88 88
Web - www.drcc.ie