Belfast rape trial review: ‘hammer of the law’ to hit social media misconduct

Review begins after calls for reform following Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding trial

Former  Ulster Rugby players Paddy Jackson (left) and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape following a trial two months ago. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Former Ulster Rugby players Paddy Jackson (left) and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape following a trial two months ago. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

A retired judge reviewing how sexual violence court cases are dealt with by the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland has warned “the hammer of the law will have to come down on misconduct in terms of social media”.

The review was initiated after widespread calls for reform following the rape trial involving two former Ireland and Ulster rugby players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.

In March both men were acquitted of raping the same woman in June 2016. Mr Jackson was also cleared of sexual assault. Two of their friends, on related charges, were also found not guilty.

Sir John Gillen made the comments in an interview on Friday with legal expert Joshua Rozenberg on BBC Radio Four’s Law in Action.

Over the last six weeks Sir John said he had interviewed a number of complainants and those who have been accused and acquitted.

He said in several instances they spoke of their “lives being ruined” by social media and of rumours and untruths being spread.

Sir John, who retired last year from the North’s court of appeal, is expected to report back to the Criminal Justice Board, which includes the Lord Chief Justice, the PSNI’s chief constable, and the director of public prosecutions, by January 2019.

Sir John told Mr Rozenberg while he had only begun the review process and was keeping an open mind, he was already certain of three points.

These were; the “pathway from complaint to trial is too long,” that the trial process is “unacceptably daunting” and that, as a society we “need to reassess our whole approach to the trauma of serious sexual offences”.

Sir John said social media was a vital factor in all three.

‘Unacceptable’

He said typically it can take up to two years for a case to come to trial and that over 40 per cent of complainants can drop out of the legal process.

This was “unacceptable”, he said.

He warned, that with the presence of social media, the “anonymity of the complainant is now a figment of our imagination”.

He also said he was exploring the possibility of anonymity for the accused as comments on social media “renders the possibility of a fair trial, worrying”.

Commenting on societal attitudes to sexual offences he said it embraced myths about trauma and serious sexual offences in particular, which in turn influenced juries; and he spoke of the issue of juror misconduct in terms of social media.

“The need to dispel mythology of jurors is a vital factor and one that is gripping my attention,” he said.

“In the Republic of Ireland there is legislation now dealing specifically with juror misconduct in terms of social media, and Scotland are looking at the same thing.

“Maybe it is time we did that [in Northern Ireland] too. “The hammer of the law will have to come down on misconduct in terms of social media.”

Sir John said the crucial protection of complainant anonymity being under threat, as evidenced “in a number of high profile trials”.

Social media

He said in small places like Belfast, Derry, Newry or Strabane the “law becomes a farce” when names are “bandied about on social media” and that this was detrimental to the administration of justice.

Sir John said he was considering anonymity for defendants, like in the Republic of Ireland, as the “accused deserve a fair trial”.

Sir John is considering recommending excluding the public - not the media or relatives of the parties - from trials to tackle a number of issues including making some effort to control social media in small jurisdictions.

He also said it was difficult for jurors to avoid social media. “Maybe the answer is we need better and stronger education of jurors,” he said.

“But the concept of a fair trial is fundamental to our legal system and all possibilities have to be looked at to ensure that both sides, complainants and accused, are getting a fair trial.”

The Office of the Attorney General of Northern Ireland is investigating possible contempt of court by a juror in the trial of the rugby players who made comments about the case online. A deadline for its conclusion has not been set.