There is still much work to do in the investigation, prosecution and trial of sexual offences, according to research by a legal academic at the University of Limerick.

In an exploration of the realities of Irish rape trials and how current laws and procedures in this area operate, Dr Susan Leahy found that while much has been achieved with recent legislative and policy developments, much remains to be accomplished.

The research, conducted in partnership with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, is based on the experience and views of legal practitioners and court accompaniment workers involved in rape.

The report points out that Irish sexual offences law was significantly modernised with the passage of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017.

However, it notes the recent publication of the Review of Protections for Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Offences shows further reforms are required in this area.

The main issues of concern include delays. Some cases take years, and this is having a significant impact on both complainant and accused.

Pre-trial hearings were suggested as a way to help case management.

Court accompaniment workers mentioned the impact on complainants "whose own healing process is arrested by delays and resulting uncertainty in the trials process", affecting their families and supporters, causing knock on problems for them in terms of employment, travel arrangements and financial burden.

The interviews for the research took place in July-Sept 2019, and given delays in cases, this meant that trials during that time related to events that predated the definition of consent in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017.

Both lawyers and accompaniment workers felt that the wider social understanding of consent was key and that the legal reform was only part of overall reform work needed.

Some accompaniment workers noted that younger people had a better understanding of consent, implying that education initiatives including media/social media campaigns on consent have an impact, which suggests that awareness initiatives targeted at other age groups are required.

The research notes that whether conscious or unconscious; ingrained or pre-existing biases, stereotypes, and assumptions influence juries.

"These rape myths may be prevalent widely in society and, in other jurisdictions, courts have introduced guidance to assist judges in directing juries to overcome them," it said.

It finds guidance can also help to mitigate "the sheer volume of information" facing jurors in some trials.

Concerns arose among those interviewed around whether complainants were adequately protected and represented during the trial process when applications to introduce sexual experience evidence were made.

Another problem is that the limited legal representation made available when such applications are made, applies only in some sexual offence cases, such as rape and aggravated sexual assault, but not in sexual assault cases.

There is evidence of many complainants waiving objections to the use of records for fear of causing further delay in proceedings.

However, some legal professionals wondered why counselling records were singled out for use as opposed to other 'personal records'; and court accompaniment workers felt generally it was a traumatising, demoralising practice that breached confidentiality and could prevent the survivor from being honest in their therapy, thus impacting their recovery.

Some felt that the prospect of notes being used might prevent victims from seeking counselling in the first place or alternatively, stop them from reporting a crime, for fear their records might eventually be sought.

It said current provision of legal supports (outside the specific case of representation during an application by the defence to admit sexual experience evidence or counselling records) is very basic.

Complainants may receive initial and general information on the trial process as well as a possible court familiarisation visit.

The study participants had mixed views on whether this offered sufficient protection for a complainant or enough information for them to fully understand the law relating to their case.

Both groups of research participants tended not to favour separate legal representation for complainants beyond existing provision, as it would cause an imbalance in the bipartite system and complicate trials.

However, they did favour better, more independent legal advice and information for complainants with clear guidelines on limits - court accompaniment workers in particular felt that such support should be available all throughout the trial process, using clear, relatable language.