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Alleged sex assault victim tells of trauma of legal aid delays - The Irish News
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Northern Ireland news

Alleged sex assault victim tells of trauma of legal aid delays

A woman has told the Irish News how delays to her case are taking a toll on her health

A YOUNG woman who is the alleged victim in one of 60 sexual offence cases currently stalled by a dispute over legal aid fees had told how the continual delays are blighting her life.

After being told the case would be "over by Christmas", the woman faces the ordeal of months `on standby' to give evidence against the person accused of attacking her.

"It's not the same (as the sexual assault), but it's on the same kind of scale," she told the Irish News.

"I am constantly being reminded what's happened. I never get to put it to bed, to put it away. It's always there. The process of it means you're reliving it all the time."

The woman said she is devastated as the case keeps being postponed because barristers won't work for new legal aid fees imposed by Justice Minister David Ford.

A senior law lord warned last month the stand-off is "significantly disrupting" the "due administration of justice".

There are 629 cases affected.

It is the first time an alleged victim has given a personal insight into the human cost of the delays.

"I just keep getting told its been put back because the legal team isn't dealing with any cases," she said.

"It's starting to really take its toll. I was asked to give available dates (to give evidence) between August and December and it was supposed to be done by December.

"In your head knowing it will all over by Christmas was very important. It gives you something to work towards. But now it won't be."

She said the uncertainty is affecting her studies and revision for upcoming exams.

"I've been to the doctors multiple times to get my mental health sorted out. I'm now on sleeping tablets and I've been put up to the highest dose of any anti-depressants. I'm on Diazepam to calm me down with panic attacks."

Victim Support NI chief executive Geraldine Hanna said the "incessant" dispute is causing added stress and anxiety.

"Preparing to give evidence is frightening and distressing enough for people without the further angst of going to court and having their case postponed due to a lack of legal representation," she said

"The human impact of this crisis is grave. People's lives are on hold as the courts come to a standstill with victims being the real casualties of this legal aid dispute.

"One of the basic principles of democracy is access to speedy justice. The current system is not operating as such and is failing society."

The Criminal Bar Association said it "strongly believes that all members of society must have access to justice", but is determined that "legal aid does not become a second class service or become permanently out of reach for deserving individuals".

"We are committed to ensuring that the process is fair, efficient and effective for victims as well as witnesses and defendants. This can only be achieved through the provision of quality representation; the need is evident and yet quality is being chiselled away in an attempt to save costs."

A Department of Justice spokesman said it "will bring forward proposals as a matter of urgency", but warned "the court upheld the Crown Court Rules (so there is) no need for the legal profession not to return to normal working".

"All members of the legal profession are encouraged to re-engage in defending their clients to ensure that they receive the appropriate access to justice that they are entitled to," he said.

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