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NI report suggests banning public from rape trials and showing juries videos about stereotyping

A need for legislation to manage social media use around these trials has also been recommended.

A protest at Belfast City Hall last week to highlight concern about how rape trials are conducted.
A protest at Belfast City Hall last week to highlight concern about how rape trials are conducted.
Image: Rebecca Black/PA

Updated Nov 20th 2018, 1:45 PM

A REVIEW OF the handling of sexual assault cases in Northern Ireland has recommended that members of the public be excluded from such trials.

The preliminary report by retired judge John Gillen was published today and states that access to trials involving serious sexual offences should be confined to close family members of the complainant, the defendant as well the media. 

In the Republic of Ireland system, rape trials are already closed to the public. Members of the media can attend but they are expected to adhere to reporting restrictions. 

The review also suggests that juries could be provided with information to help guard against stereotyping. 

The review was launched two months after former Ulster Rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were found not guilty of rape. The high-profile trial prompted questions about how complainants and defendants are treated, as well as the influence of social media.

Gillen also said new legislation to manage social media use around these types of trials should be looked at as it can destroy reputations.

However he rejected suggestions that accused persons should be anonymous until they are convicted – he recommends they remain anonymous until they are charged and after that they can be named.

In the Republic of Ireland, accused persons remain anonymous after they are charged and Gillen notes that, to his knowledge, it is the only common law country in which this is the case. 

Gillen says he is opposed to changing Northern Ireland’s laws to allow anonymity because he argues that naming the accused can encourage other complainants to come forward.

“Such additional witnesses can be vital in a genre of crime where it is often a
case of one person’s word against another with little further evidence, where
currently approximately 83% of complainants are not reporting to the police
and where acquittal rates are already very high,” the review states.

He has also said there should be measures to combat rape myths and stereotypes involving the way a complainant dressed, the fact that they had drunk alcohol or taken drugs, or the fact that they did not scream or fight.

“Frustratingly, many people, men and women, still harbour unspoken views about appropriate behaviour for individuals according to their gender,” Gillen stated in his review. 

“These myths need to change, they need to be removed.” He said judges should have a more robust attitude to prevent improper cross-examination.

The report suggests that it could be possible to guard against stereotyping by providing juries with educational material, a short video, judicial direction or expert evidence. 

“In the wider context there is a need for an extensive public awareness and school education campaign,” the report adds.

Gillen also says that consent is “very complex and difficult” in a legal context and can also be vague. This is why he says that juries may be at risk of being subject to stereotypes when they seek to judge consent. 

And he recommended cross-examination of complainants should be pre-recorded away from court. This initially would apply to vulnerable people but would be extended to all complainants in serious sexual offences.

This report is now being put to public consultation, with submissions being accepted until 15 January.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy 

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