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Question

554. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Justice if she will introduce strict time limits for applications to adduce sexual experience evidence and ensure that legal counsel representing the complainant is not much less experienced than those representing the prosecution and defence in such cases for sexual assault and rape trials. [37425/21]

Answer

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy Hildegarde Naughton): As I know the Deputy is aware, my Department is leading on the delivery of a number of important commitments to make sure that we are responding effectively to the needs of victims of sexual violence. This includes the full and timely implementation of the detailed roadmap for the introduction of the recommendations contained in the O'Malley Review.  Entitled Supporting a Victim's Journey - A plan to help victims and vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases this plan will, when implemented, protect and support vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences.  
Among the many issues being dealt with by Supporting a Victim's Journey are legal representation for victims, and the need for victims to be treated with dignity and respect at every stage throughout the process, including during any questioning around the victim's sexual experience. 
The Criminal Procedure Act, which was signed into law by the President on the 24 th of May 2021 introduces key changes to the way questioning on prior sexual history will unfold at a trial. Other than in exceptional circumstances, the Act will require the intention to question a victim on their prior sexual history to be raised at a preliminary trial hearing, before the commencement of the trial. This will be of great help to victims as it removes uncertainty, brings the issue forward to the start of the process, allows them to know in advance and be informed as to whether this type of questioning will be permitted in the trial.
Supporting a Victim's Journey will also ensure the victim's right to have the same legal representation at the preliminary trial hearing and during the trial itself if an application to question them about prior sexual history is made at the preliminary trial hearing and is granted.  
The victim will be entitled to their own, dedicated legal advice and support throughout the process (not just during the court case). The victim will also be entitled to legal aid for this purpose. The availability of a legal expert in their corner, should they wish, will be of great assistance and they will have someone whose only role in the case is to advise them. 
Recommendation 5.5 of Supporting a Victim's Journey states that once notification has been given at a preliminary trial hearing of intention to apply for leave to question a victim at trial under the terms of section 3 of the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981, the Legal Aid Board should be immediately informed. The Legal Aid Board, in turn, should endeavour to ensure that the victim is represented by counsel of a level of seniority similar to that of counsel representing the prosecution and defence.
My Department sought leave from of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) to make changes to the fee structure of the Legal Aid Board’s Barrister’s panel. Having written to DPER in that regard in early November 2020, sanction was given in early March for either a single Junior or Senior Counsel to support victims in connection with applications under section 3/4 of the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981 in which they are entitled to separate legal representation and where they have been granted legal aid.
Implementing Supporting a Victim's Journey in full will require a number of legislative changes, the first being the Criminal Procedure Act, discussed above. In order to implement the rest of the required changes needed, a scoping exercise is currently being undertaken by my Department for a new Sexual Offences Bill. The Bill will encompass provisions to implement the O’Malley Report recommendations as well as for additional harassment orders to the 2017 Sexual Offences Act and to implement the recommendations of the 2019 Law Reform Commission Report on Knowledge or Belief Concerning Consent in Rape Law.  
The proposed amendments to the legislation dealing with sexual offences will need detailed consideration from a policy perspective throughout the development of a general scheme of a Bill and the subsequent drafting process. This will include engagement with stakeholders and careful assessment of implications and costings. 
I envisage that General Scheme of this Bill will be brought to Cabinet by the end of 2021.