Man pleads guilty to publishing name of woman at centre of Belfast rape trial

Fine of £300 imposed for breaching lifetime ban on reporting identity of complainant

A man has pleaded guilty to publishing the name of a woman at the centre of a rape trial involving two rugby stars.

Sean McFarland was fined £300 after being convicted of breaching a lifetime ban on reporting the identity of the complainant in the case against former Ireland and Ulster players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.

He is the first person in Northern Ireland to be prosecuted for the offence.

Mr Jackson (26) and Mr Olding (25) were both unanimously cleared of raping the woman following a high-profile trial earlier this year.

Amid unprecedented public interest, concerns over social media commentary persisted throughout the 42-day criminal proceedings in Belfast.

The complainant is entitled to anonymity for the rest of her life.

McFarland (36) of Rinnalea Gardens in the west of the city, was charged with publishing her name on a date between February 7th-9th this year, in contravention of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

He had been expected to contest the allegation, with a date for his trial due to be fixed at Belfast Magistrates’ Court.

But, instead, the Courts Service confirmed McFarland entered a guilty plea during today's hearing.

On that basis the £300 fine was imposed, plus a £15 offender levy.

Following the outcome Marianne O’Kane, head of the North’s Public Prosecution Service’s Serious Crime Unit, urged social media users to avoid public commentary on any live court proceedings.

“Complainants of rape and other sexual offences are automatically guaranteed anonymity for life, except in very limited circumstances,” she said.

“The public, in particular users of social media, need to be acutely aware of the importance of that right.”

Ms O’Kane added: “This case underlines that it is a criminal offence to publish the name, address or image of any complainant of a serious sexual offence if it is likely to lead to the complainant’s identification - and we will prosecute for such an offence where the test for prosecution is met.

“We would also ask the public to take extreme care when publishing any type of commentary on any live court proceedings, given the potential risk of prejudice to a fair trial.”

Mr Jackson and Mr Olding were unanimously acquitted of raping the then 19-year-old woman at a party in Mr Jackson’s house following a night out in Belfast in June 2016.

Blane McIlroy (26) was unanimously cleared of a charge of exposure, while Rory Harrison (25) was unanimously found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information at the same trial.

Separately, in a PSNI statement released after the hearing, Detective Chief Inspector Zoe McKee from the North’s Public Protection Branch said: “We welcome the conviction of Sean McFarland today after he pleaded guilty to one charge of breaching the lifetime ban on reporting the identity of a complainant in a rape trial which took place in Belfast earlier this year.

“This is the first time that anyone in Northern Ireland had been prosecuted for breaching this right to anonymity and should act as a deterrent to anyone who names a complainant in any serious sexual offence, who are entitled to lifelong anonymity.

“The Police Service of Northern Ireland is fully committed to investigating offences of this nature.

“We understand how difficult it can be for anyone to report a rape. I would encourage anyone who has been the victim of any sexual crime either recently or in the past to contact police or to speak to someone about what has happened.”