Legal System Fails to Serve Victims of Crime, Claims Former Garda

Victim Assistance Ireland rebuilding victim's dignity

While Central Statistic Office statistics may show that crime figures in general are down, victims of crime still feel that more should be done for them.

According to Mr Gerard Kealy, Public Relations officer with Victim Assistance Ireland, many victims he’s dealing with feel that they are just witnesses to the legal system, and they are also unhappy with how they are kept informed of the progress of their cases.

Mr Kealy was a Garda for over thirty years, and he says the reason for his working with Victim Assistance Ireland is that it’s his attempt to redress the balance between offender and victim. “The legal system at present is completely oriented towards the offender, rather than the victim. The victim is more or less left out in the cold. There is a major need for redress, and the biggest one at the moment with respect to victims of crime is the elderly being scammed,” said Mr Kealy.

For reasons of confidentiality, Mr Kealy couldn’t reveal specific details. However, he did describe a recent incident where three elderly gentlemen in their eighties were forced to hand over 3,000 euro of their savings to a gang for an job that had been agreed upon at 200 euro. “They were bamboozled into accepting the initial deal, then they set about pulling their house apart, saying this and that needed replacing.” 

According to Mr Kealy, the gentlemen were pushed around and confused by the gang. This method of preying on the elderly—and their being forced into agreeing to certain terms under the threat of violence—is much more prevalent these days, according to Mr Kealy.

“We go out and sit and talk to them, and listen to everything that has happened to them,” he said.

From a practical point of view, Mr Kealy helps these victims rebuild their shattered confidence. “What people don’t understand is that it gets to the stage where it’s almost like a bereavement for these victims…they are guilty, they are sad, they become withdrawn. It’s amazing the effect these things have on people: it’s not so much the money itself, it’s the actual attack on their dignity, it’s the same with any serious break in,” he said.

“For elderly people it sets them back completely. Could you imagine you were an elderly person on their own, and then that happens to them. They are left high and dry by the entire system. They become even more withdrawn. What happens then is that it becomes almost a mental issue in some cases,” said Mr Kealy.

“I know of one case of an elderly woman I knew who always had a big hello for everyone, a very healthy and active lady. But after the burglary in her house…the very next day she went into a nursing home, and she never came out again. She was dead within a year. That destroyed her, because when they broke in they wrecked her house, turned everything upside down. They stole a couple of rings her late husband had had…I wouldn’t tell you what else they did in her house. And she never went back,” said Mr Kealy. 

The Legal Standpoint in Ireland

Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College, Dublin explained some of the issues victims face in the Irish legal system. 

“Victims of crime in Ireland and any common law system are regarded as prosecution witnesses, generally. Therefore, the victim’s role is really that of a witness for the prosecution—usually the chief witness,” said Ms Bacik. 

“There is a lot more information available for victims now pre-trial that there was previously,” said Ms Bacik. “There is also better recognition of the need to keep victims informed even during the trial, but victims still do not have their own lawyer. In 1998 I did research for the rape crisis centre on victims of rape about whom there are very specific concerns, because they tend to be cross-examined in many cases more rigorously than victims of other crimes—the specific rules of evidence make the trial process more difficult for victims in these cases. We made various recommendations on foot of which there have been changes made to the way in which rape victims are treated.” 

Ms Bacik said that another specific change made relatively recently (in 1993) was the introduction of victim impact statements—statements which the victim give to the Judge to inform the court of the impact the crime has had on the victim. However, these only come into play if the accused is convicted of the crime, and at that point the Judge may look for a victim impact statement. 

“We did some research recently on victim support groups for the department, and we found some real inconsistency in the service,” said Ms Bacik. 

“There is a whole network of quite ad hoc victim support groups around the country, many of which are doing fantastic work on a voluntary basis in most cases, but obviously from the victim’s point of view, the service may be very different depending on where they live. Some services may offer court accompaniment, for example, which is of huge importance for many victims where they have been through a traumatic crime, but that’s not offered everywhere. Now we have a much better system where, if someone reports a crime to the Gardai of which they are a victim, the Gardai will send out a letter to them notifying them of the availability of support services in their area—that’s really positive,” said Ms Bacik.