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Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Retired judge warns public could be excluded from serious sex trials

Written by Michael McHugh

The public should be excluded from serious sex trials as part of a radical overhaul in Northern Ireland, a retired senior judge proposed.

Sir John Gillen is leading an independent review following the acquittal of two Irish rugby internationals of rape charges in Belfast earlier this year.

Sir John (pictured) published a preliminary report on Tuesday with more than 220 draft recommendations - including restricting access to serious sexual crime trials to only close family members of the alleged victim and defendant and the mainstream media.

He said: "Confidence-building measures for complainants who fear the cruel glare of public exposure, particularly in high-profile trials in front of packed public galleries, are now vital.

"If we are to challenge the gross under-reporting, high dropout rates and an unacceptably daunting trial process, I consider the arguments in favour of restricted access measures carry convincing weight."

The public is already excluded in the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.

In Scotland onlookers are barred when the complainant gives evidence.

Other key draft recommendations from the recently retired Court of Appeal judge included creating new laws surrounding inappropriate use of social media, where the name of the alleged victim and even images may circulate and which in a small jurisdiction like Northern Ireland may seriously damage a person's anonymity.

The report urged strong judicial powers to control access to websites during trials and the making of fresh offences for jurors who offend against judicial guidance.

Under-reporting of serious sexual crime is "unacceptably low", around one in six tell police of their ordeal.

Early pre-recording of cross-examination could take place in a non-courtroom setting to make the process easier for alleged victims and encourage people to come forward, the preliminary report said.

The physical layout of older courthouses could be altered to ensure a victim and their accused did not meet.

A judge would consider whether certain questions could be asked of an accused beforehand.

Public funding would enable legal representation for the victim in cases where she or he may be asked about sexual history or face intrusive scrutiny of personal life.

The judge provisionally said measures should be introduced at the onset of the trial to combat rape myths which may influence a jury, like what type of clothing a victim was wearing, or the self-blame which many needlessly feel, or whether they struggled or not during an alleged attack - which can become an issue during court proceedings.

The judge's draft report also called for better public education through the school system to combat myths surrounding sexual crime.

Most proposed recommendations do not require legislation but a minority, including those surrounding social media, would.

The devolved administration at Stormont has not sat for months following a row between former partners the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein.

The judge said steps should be taken to combat excessive delay in the justice system, which can make the process more onerous for victims.


Many victims of serious sexual crime in Northern Ireland believed myths surrounding rape, a retired senior judge probing the issue said.

In some cases those attacked can blame themselves and issues like whether a woman's clothing could be considered provocative have also been raised in past court cases, Sir John Gillen noted.

His preliminary report called for better education surrounding the issue.

He said: "I found it really harrowing, sitting and listening to these complainants. I spent an hour-and-a-half with each of them.

"The saddest thing was that in many cases they bought into the rape myth."

Often victims felt ashamed and wondered what they could have done differently.

Sir John added: "The refusal to accept that the victim is never ever to blame in any way, any shape or form, is something that not only does the public not seem to fully understand, in some instances, but even the victims, even the complainants."

He said myths around rape should be robustly challenged.

"We need some radical rethinking of societal attitudes to sexual abuse in the wake of public campaigns."

Sir John said his report should not be viewed as skewed towards the victim, it also considered the voice of the accused and spoke to many who had been cleared of serious sexual crime.

Severe physical and mental consequences are often suffered by the accused who have been cleared of serious sexual offences and they can face public opprobrium.

The retired judge did not favour changing the law to anonymise the identity of the accused after he or she has been charged in court.

The matter generated more controversy and division of opinion than any other in the Gillen review.

The status quo should be maintained because it brought forward other potential victims in institutional abuse or serial offender cases, the retired judge proposed.

Sir John's draft report said: "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."

He said it was difficult to justify making an exception anonymising those accused of serious sexual offences but not murder or unspeakable cruelty to children.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) PA Wire.