lady justice

‘It’s just sex and violence, melody and silence’

Orla Hubbard considers conservative Irish attitudes towards sexual violence. lady justice

A national debate was rekindled last month when Judge Martin Nolan imposed a €15,000 fine as the penalty for the sexual assault of a teenage girl, allowing her attacker to walk out of Dublin Circuit Criminal Court a free man. This most recent judgment falls against a sweeping backdrop of excessive leniency from the Irish judiciary in sexual violence cases, and is indicative of a much deeper societal problem.

Following delivery of the judgment on 17 October, groups such as the Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) expressed their concern that inconsistent and lenient sentencing puts victims off reporting sexual violence. The judgment in this case is particularly troubling, as it implies that if you have the means to pay a lump sum to your victim, you don’t have to do any jail time. It is shameful that our courts see fit to send out any such message, and their doing so diminishes and disregards the effect that violent sexual assaults have on their victims.

The same judge freed another man last month who pleaded guilty to abusing his two adult nieces. Judge Nolan said in that case that publishing the perpetrator’s name was punishment enough.

Unfortunately, these toothless scoldings are not the isolated whims of one particular judge, but two pieces of a much larger, and more complex, puzzle. These decisions highlight the trend in Irish courts of showing excessive and unjustifiable leniency towards perpetrators in sexual assault cases.

Earlier this year, a Dublin businessman who pled guilty to a sexual assault ‘of a seriously frightening nature’ was ordered to pay the victim €75,000, and had five-and-a-half years of his six-year prison sentence suspended. The fact that judgments like this continue to be handed down, and followed as good law in the Irish courts, gives the impression that there is one law for the rich, and another for the poor, in this country.

The perpetrator’s wealth, or lack thereof, should have no bearing whatsoever on whether he is sent to prison – that should be determined by the seriousness of the offence, and ultimately by his culpability for it. The purpose of sentencing is to mark society’s abhorrence of a particular crime, to deter the perpetrator and others from committing the crime, as well as to acknowledge the harm caused to the victim.

The main problem with inconsistent and lenient sentencing is that it deters victims from reporting sexual assaults, and it sends out the message that our justice system does not take the crime seriously. Ireland cannot afford to persist with its traditionally weak stance on sexual violence; our courts need to set an example by acknowledging the seriousness of these crimes, otherwise they are simply fuelling the tradition of shame and silence that has long permeated this country. 

Having considered our legal and cultural context, Ireland’s consistently low prosecution rates for sexual violence will not come as any great shock. In 2010, 29.5% of survivors who contacted the RCNI had reported the sexual assault to the Gardaí. Of this 29.5%, only 30% will ultimately end up before the courts. Continuing with this theme, there has only been one successful conviction for marital rape in Ireland since it was criminalised in 1990. These shamefully low statistics, coupled with the recent spate of weak and inconsistent sentencing, highlights the urgent need for sentencing guidelines for sexual assault cases in Ireland.

Such guidelines already exist in the UK, and the 2011 programme for government promised to establish a Judicial Council on a statutory basis in Ireland, which, when it happens, will hopefully implement similar guidelines here.

In addition, it is also vital that the DPP continues to play her part in reforming judicial attitudes by appealing excessively lenient sentences. Only through a combined effort can we restore confidence in the ability of our criminal justice system to appropriately punish the perpetrators of violent sexual attacks.

In order to understand why the response to sexual violence has been so inadequate in Ireland, it is necessary to recognise that there are much deeper societal issues at play. Ireland has a long-standing tradition of stigma and silence surrounding issues of a sexual nature thanks to our historically conservative culture, and this applies, perhaps especially, to sexual violence.

Along with our innate moral conservatism, it is undeniable that the Catholic Church had their part to play in fostering this culture of shame and silence in Ireland. Everyone is by now familiar with the cases of Gardaí and community members across the country, who were ostracised by the local clergy and their neighbours for raising concerns about the sexual abuse of children.

Some might argue that this is a different issue altogether from common sexual assault cases, but it stems from the same deep roots of silence, secrecy and burying our heads in the sand, which are all at play in the judgments mentioned above.

Our legal system is failing victims. We can talk all we want about feminism and gender equality, but when our courts tell us that €15,000 is a fair trade for sexually assaulting a teenage girl, we don’t need to wonder why victims don’t expect to be taken seriously.

Almost immediately after Judge Nolan announced his sentence, a campaign to have him struck off was launched by advocacy groups around the country. But we need to recognise that a backlash like this won’t solve the real problem; he is not the only judge to have imposed unduly lenient sentences for sexual assaults, nor will he be the last, until our deeper, darker cultural issues have been dealt with. Ireland needs strong sentencing guidelines, legal certainty and a national dialogue to end the stigma attached to speaking out about sexual violence.