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Sexual assault trials in the North: 'Anonymity of complainant is now a figment of our imagination'

Sir John Gillen said the report into Northern Ireland’s law would consider the anonymity of defendants.

Rugby players court case Paddy Jackson leaves Belfast Crown Court after he was found not guilty of raping a woman at a property in south Belfast in June 2016. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

A RETIRED JUDGE tasked with reviewing Northern Ireland’s handling of sexual assault trials has said that the rules will have to change because of social media.

“Until we get to grips with it, then I think it will gather momentum,” Sir John Gillen told  BBC Radio 4′s Law in Action.

“The hammer of the law will have to come down on misconduct in terms of social media.”

The retired appeal judge was appointed to review the law in Northern Ireland relating to sexual assault cases in the aftermath of the Belfast rape trial.

The high-profile case, which ran for nine weeks, resulted in Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding being unanimously acquitted by a jury of raping a woman at Jackson’s Belfast home in June 2016.

The trial prompted a discussion about how complainants and defendants in sexual assault cases are treated, and the role and influence of social media during a trial.

When asked if he had reached a conclusion, Gillen said that he was only “six weeks into a nine-month inquiry” so it was important to keep “an open mind”.

But three things I am certain about. The first is that the pathway from complaint to trial is too long, and secondly the trial process itself is unacceptably daunting.
And thirdly we as a society – and that includes judges, legal professionals and juries – need to reassess our whole approach to the trauma of serious sexual offences. And the advent of social media is a vital factor in all three of those aspects.

Elaborating on those points, Gillen said that typically it can take two years for a sexual assault case to reach trial, and that over 40% of complainants drop out of the trial process: “that is unlike any other crime, and it’s unacceptable”.

He said that one of the reasons why trials such as these were so daunting was because of the social media commentary.

“The anonymity of the complainant is now a figment of our imagination. We are looking, for example, at the anonymity of the accused because once again the vituperous comments spreading right throughout social media renders the possibility of a fair trial worrying.”

He said that there was also a need for societal change and to “dispel myths” juries might have about serious sexual offenses – what he described as “a vital factor”.

Commenting on what problems social media has already caused in the trial process, Gillen said:

The complainant is meant to be anonymous, it’s a crucial protection for complainants in trials. That has disappeared in a number of high profile trials where the name if the complainant is bandied about in social media.
And in a small place like Belfast or Newry, or Derry or Strabane, it means the law becomes a farce in terms of protection of the anonymity of the complainant.

‘An onslaught of toxic content’

After the Belfast trial verdict was announced, Jackson’s solicitor Joe McVeigh made a statement where he argued that the trial process in the North was not “in good health”:

Vile commentary expressed on social media going well beyond fair comment has polluted the sphere of public discourse and raised real concerns about the integrity of the trial process.
To that end, we want to thank the learned trial judge Patricia Smyth for her management of this trial in the face of an onslaught of toxic content, particularly on Twitter. Several days of this trial were lost to the problems thrown up by the intrusive infection of the process by social media. All the lawyers have been distracted by having to man the barriers against a flood of misinformed, misconceived and malicious content on the internet, particularly during the last phase of this trial.
Worryingly, even at the heart of public service they should have known better there is no reason to believe that this problem will not worsen. To that end we invite the office of the Lord Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the Public Prosecution Service to enter into fresh discussions with us to look at more robust mechanisms that can strike an effective balance between everyone’s rights but that properly secure the integrity of our justice system.

The review was tasked with examining: measures to ensure the anonymity of the complainant; the arguments for defendant anonymity; the impact of social media on trials and public attendance at trials, among other issues.

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