People risk being sued for online comments on verdict, say experts

Defamation laws apply to online commentary in case of Belfast rape trial

Individuals who post messages on social media questioning the verdict in the Belfast rape trial could run the risk of being sued, according to legal experts.

A number of public figures and sportspeople have drawn criticism for comments they made on social media following the verdict.

In a Twitter post, Labour senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin praised the complainant at the centre of the case and questioned the verdict. He later deleted the message.

A spokesman for the Labour party said: “He knows it was wrong, he put his hands up and deleted it. He reacted before we got to him... he was reacting to the verdict when it came out.”


He added that social media guidelines have been given to all public representatives and party members who are active online.

Laois GAA player Gary Walsh was also at the centre of controversy when he wrote on Twitter that the complainant should be identified.

“Where’s your ones name from the paddy jackson trial?... It’s her that should be destroyed in the papers now, all yee feminisits come at me I’ll throw the kitchen sink at ye.” He later issued an apology.

“It was ill-judged on my behalf in this regard,” he said.

League of Ireland club Drogheda United also issued a statement saying it was "horrified" after remarks posted on the Twitter account of club midfielder Luke Rossiter.

The message made derogatory comments about the complainant.

The club said the matter would be investigated and dealt with internally by the club while the rest of the squad will be reminded of their responsibilities.

“Opinions expressed on personal social media accounts are in no way representative of the club,” Drogheda United said in a statement.

Defamation laws

Legal experts have warned that individuals should be careful about posting messages online given that they are also subject to defamation laws.

Andrea Martin of Media Lawyers solicitors said: "There is a lot of strong feeling about this but, from a legal perspective, the laws of defamation apply online and offline."

Solicitor Kieran Friel said social media did not give people the right to say what they liked online.

“There will be strongly held opinion on either side, but these are people who are reading newspaper articles and listening to news reports which are, at most, five or ten minutes in length,” he said.

“This was a nine-week trial; I imagine most people commenting online were not present in court and do not know the full details of evidence that was heard in court. They would therefore want to be careful about what they say.

"Defamation exists no matter where you say it, online or elsewhere. An award of €75,000 was made in a defamation case regarding comments that were written on Facebook. "

This case related to a Co Monaghan man who posted a defamatory item on Facebook about the national director of a game shooting body. He was ordered to pay €75,000 in damages.

The judge in the case said he hoped his order should “teach people posting messages on the social media site to be very careful”.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), meanwhile, is to commence an investigation into social media posts which named the complainant at the centre of the rape trial involving Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.

Det Chief Supt Paula Hilman noted that the woman had been named on social media during the trial, contrary to her legal entitlement.

“Any breach of this entitlement will be investigated,” she said.

Mr Friel said there have been cases in the past where social media users who named a complainant in a rape trial were prosecuted.

"In the Ched Evans and Clayton McDonald case, a number of people who reported the name of the complainant on social media were each ordered to pay £624 of compensation, and a criminal prosecution was brought against them under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act (1992)", he said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent