Victims feeling empowered to come forward is obviously important but have we the right systems and supports in place so that when people do this they know that their accusations will be heard and deliberated on in a way that is respectful both to the accuser and the accused?
I have had very mixed emotions and opinions on the #metoo movement since it began. It’s been so encouraging and heartening to see people who have been obviously mistreated come forward and unashamedly share their experiences. But among the serious allegations of rape, assault or harassment were stories of someone who is in the public eye behaving in ways that made another uncomfortable – and it wasn’t clear that anyone had actually done anything wrong. The media seemed, for no clear reason, to lump all these cases together. The resignation of Al Franken seemed completely unnecessary and the lack of due process was starting to really bother me.
I began writing something about the importance of the presumption of innocence but ultimately I shied away from the topic because I don’t have a #metoo experience and there were so many people that came forward who highlighted awful harassment (and worse) and every single one of them deserved to be heard and supported in their quest for justice.
Then a couple of months ago the rape trial in Belfast began. A young woman said she had been raped and sexually assaulted when after a night out she went back to the house of one of the accused. Four young men were on trial; one accused of rape and sexual assault (I may not be naming the correct charges – I don’t want to go into explicit detail), one accused of sexual assault, one accused of indecent exposure and one accused of attempting to cover up what had happened. The woman was 19 years old when this happened and the men were in their early 20s. Also, the men were all ruby players for Ulster and Ireland. (Correction: One plays for Ulster and Ireland, one plays for Ulster and the other two are their friends. Who they are isn’t the issue though.)
The trial changed my mind about the #metoo movement. I suddenly saw it as a very necessary movement. The movement had no part to play in this trial. The woman started the process of seeking justice two years ago, right after the incident occurred. But the reason why I saw the #metoo movement differently was because I suddenly had to face how wrong my own attitude to reporting sexual assault and rape was. I was amazed at the bravery of this young woman. And also at the wisdom of her friends who encouraged her to pursue justice.
With deep shame I realised that if in my early 20s a friend had told me of such an experience I would have been sympathetic, I would have gone with them to any clinic or anything like that, I would have strongly advised them to get counselling, but while I wouldn’t have advised them to not go to the police, I wouldn’t have advised them to do this either – and if they were wavering in anyway about doing so I would probably have been very supportive of just trying to let it go and move on. It’s terrible and regardless of last week’s verdict I know how completely and utterly wrong that attitude is. I knew it before. It’s just I didn’t really face that I had this attitude so deeply ingrained until the details of this case made me do so. The bravery and wisdom of this young woman and her friends really amazed me and has made me view the world and myself differently. Her readiness to go to the police and the way the police handled the case seemed like evidence of how much our world has progressed – and evidence that I needed to move forward a couple of steps myself to catch up with it.
The trial was awful though. The trial made it seem like nothing had moved on. The woman seemed to be more on trial than the accused. She handled it brilliantly and it seemed like the evidence weighed strongly in her favour. As I read the accounts from the trial, that seemed to be published almost daily, I wondered why the young men hadn’t admitted guilt and tried to plead diminished responsibility because of the amount of alcohol they had consumed – so strongly it seemed the evidence weighed against them. However, the jury clearly were of a very different mindset as they unanimously cleared the men of all charges, after less than four hours of deliberations.
Of course the court’s verdict must be accepted. But nonetheless it was a shocking verdict.
But regardless of the verdict the fact that this young woman came forward should be applauded (and is being by many of us who followed the trial). The first step is standing up and demanding the respect that it due to you. And seeing someone else do this reminds everyone else that this is something they can do.
And so the #metoo movement has perhaps already started a change by encouraging people to take that first step. But we need to take further steps for real change to occur.
The next step is to ensure that our societies do respond respectfully to those who make their stand.
I’m not suggesting that whenever someone stands up and accuses someone of a sexual crime they should be instantly and without question believed. Being truly respectful means respecting the rights of all. The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of our justice system – and the presumption of basic common decency and goodness of all (which is what the presumption of innocence implies) is essential for the creation of a truly civilised society. But that presumption must be afforded not only to those accused but to the accusers also. And, as this trial has shown, the whole reason why the #metoo movement is so necessary is because often in cases concerning sexual crimes the accused may seem to benefit from this presumption while the accusers in contrast can face a full on attack on their character and behaviour.
So what changes could be made to the justice system to ensure that accusers are treated respectfully?
- Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre wrote a very good article in the wake of the verdict asking for accusers in cases of this nature to have legal representation at trial. I would strongly support such a change and hope this is something we can implement.
- Northern Ireland is actually a separate jurisdiction to our’s but they are both built on the same foundations and are very similar. One difference though is that members of the public aren’t allowed attend rape trials and details of the accused and the accusers are not published until after the verdict, sometimes not even then. I think this is right and protective of the rights of both the accused and accuser.
- I strongly believe that from our teens we should all be aware of our rights and obligations regarding criminal matters. We should be taught how to report crimes, what to do if we are arrested, and what the are the essential points of the laws regarding any type of violent crime or theft. This should be taught in schools to 16 year olds. Part and parcel of this course should be lessons on what is consent and how to determine if it has occurred. And students should have to sign off on completing this part of the course (literally they should have to sign something that says they’ve completed a course on consent and the law).
- Also, should we consider requiring explicit consent in cases concerning group acts? I don’t know – but maybe this should be debated?
I applaud the young woman in this case. She did everything one should do following rape/sexual assault. She serves as a shining example of how to best behave in such cases. And this case seems to have shone a spotlight on the inadequacies of the justice systems with regard to how accusers in these cases are treated. Let’s not ignore what it’s revealed.
Encourage victims to come forward don’t force them
The bravery of this young woman is undeniable and very encouraging. However if there was a rule in place that had forced her to go through that horrible trial rather than her bravely choosing to do so – that wouldn’t be encouraging – it would be the very opposite. It would make victims less likely to come forward – so Scotland please do not enact any laws that would do this.
In making the system more accessible and more approachable for victims we must be careful not to weaken the protections for the accused
Survivors of sexual violence are let down by the criminal justice system – here’s what should happen by Dr Simon McCarthy-Jonesof Trinity College
This article is very interesting and outlines very well the issues many victims of sexual violence have with the criminal justice system. It’s very informative and well worth the read.
It also suggests using a more inquisitorial trial process as opposed to the adversarial one we use today. I don’t agree with that point and I’ll explain why below.
I strongly agree that victims of sexual crimes, and perhaps victims of all violent crimes, should have some sort of legal representation or advocate throughout the processing of their case through the system. It is one of the faults of our criminal justice system that victims (and/or the families of victims) of any type of violent crime can feel let down by the system. They can feel they weren’t really heard or represented properly – or at all – in court. And I do think if the system properly supported these people it would have a very positive effect both on the people involved and on their communities.
The reason why I don’t agree with a more inquisitorial trial process is because such a process does not start with the presumption of innoncence of the accused. It is about trying to discover what actually happened. I think when you have the weight of the state accusing someone of a crime then the presumption of innocence of the accused is vital to ensuring that the trial is fair. I suspect that it is much easier to convict an accused with only circumstantial evidence in such a system* and that worries me as I think it could increase the chance of an innocent person being convicted of a crime. The burden of proof must be on the state and it must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
* The reason why I think this is because I have watched a few programmes about miscarriages of justice in the French courts. I enjoy watching documentarties and I enjoy watching stuff in French so that is how I came to watch these shows. There are miscarriages of justice in the courts of every country and I don’t mean to suggest in any way that our system is better than theirs – I’m just more comfortable with the one we have. The French judicial system is more inquisitorial than adversarial and I fully admit to not knowing much about it and the knowledge I do have of it is obviously from a very skewed perspective – but one thing that does seem clear is that it is much easier in such a system to convict someone on circumstantial evidence and I would be highly apprehensive of adopting such a system – given the fact that it is so completely different to the one that we have.
I hope that there will be a change in the system that will allow victims more support and representation but the accused must always be afforded the presumption of innocence also.
Just to be clear I agree wth everything in the article – except for the point about changing the courts procedures in cases involving charges of sexual violence from an adversarial to inquisitorial style.
Part of what’s needed is a change in our society more so than a change in the justice system
The article mentions “rape myths”. I actually wasn’t sure what these were but I found this wikipedia page which lists the most common misconceptions people have about rape and consent. I think the majority of people in our society would not hold or agree with the majority of these myths. But some undoubtedly do and a few of the myths are more tenaciously held than others.
There has been a lot of talk in the press and media about teaching about consent in schools, with some calls for it to be taught in primary school. When I initially read this I balked at the idea but that was because I was thinking about informing them about the legalities of what is and is not consent, which would involve going into the details of some cases that led to those laws, and obviously that wouldn’t be appropriate information for primary school children. But nobody is talking about teaching legal principles to anybody (apart from me). So presumably it would be lessons in how to say yes and no and respecting that response when you get it. I think teaching children how to be assertive and respectful is a great idea.
I think the assertiveness of the young woman in the Belfast trial and the support that her friends showed for that assertiveness is to be commended. I was stunned by it – in a very positive way. I’m so sorry that she has had to go through what she did but I hope she knows that her actions have changed some minds and hopefully will lead to more lasting positive changes.
I do think that the basics of how the criminal justice system works, in particular with regard to crimes involving sexual violence, should be widely known and understood by people from their teens onwards. But perhaps it would be too costly to introduce such a course in schools and in this age of information maybe it could be available online instead. I genuinely believe that it would help if people knew what is and what is not consent in the eyes of the law.
We need somehow to create a society where people are assertive enough to demand the respect they are due and where we are respectful of such demands in others. How to create this ideal world? I don’t know exactly but teaching assertiveness and respect, making sure everyone is informed of their rights and responsibilities in respect of the law, refusing to engage in victim blaming and refusing to entertain in any way beliefs that deny the reality of sexual violence – well, it would be a very good start.