Northern Ireland news

Alleged victim's name was posted on comments section of an online news site

(l-r) Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison pictured arriving at Belfast Crown Court this morning. Photos: Hugh Russell 

THE public manner in which rape trials are heard in a social media age may have to be considered in future, a leading victims' lawyer has said.

During the trial of Paddy Jackson (26) and Stuart Olding (24) for rape, the public gallery of Court 12 of Belfast Crown Court was packed to capacity each day.

The name of the alleged victim, who is entitled to anonymity, was mentioned numerous times in open court. It was later posted by a member of the public in the comments section of an online news site.

In the Republic the law changed more than 20 years ago to excluded the public from rape, incest or an aggravated sexual assault trials.

However, members of the press are entitled to remain in the court throughout and the alleged victim can have a friend or relative with them for the duration.

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Where the law in the south also differs dramatically is that the alleged victim and the accused are both entitled to anonymity.

If convicted the defendant can be named unless naming them would identify the victim. If found not guilty they retain the right to anonymity.

Sinead Larkin, of Larkin O'Connor Cassidy Solicitors, who represents a number of adult and child victims of abuse, said the current system was in need of review.

As it stands an alleged victim is classed as a witness for the Public Prosecution Service and therefore not entitled to legal representation during the trial.

Senior lawyer Sinead Larkin said consideration needs to be given as to how rape trials are heard in a social media age.

Ms Larkin said she is often contacted by victims who feel more comfortable asking for advice from a solicitor they have a working relationship with, rather than raising queries or concerns with the PPS.

"Certainly what is clear is that the alleged victim of serious offences like rape or abuse of any kind needs a higher level of support, care and attention than they are receiving at present.

"There is a police liasion officer assigned whom the victim can engage with but they are not legally qualified and so some of the victim's questions may remain unanswered.

"At the very least a PPS lawyer should be assigned to the alleged victim".

Ms Larkin added that the rugby players' trial demonstrated that social media should be a consideration in how future cases proceed through the courts.

"While the alleged victim had the benefit of anonymity, this was somewhat superficial given that she was overtly referred to in a trial open to the public.

"While the matters swirling around outside the confines of Court 12 Laganside are unlikely to affect the process within, the fact is that all of the participants will suffer the effects of the trial being open to the public.

"In an age before social media this may not have represented such an issue for the justice system, however the prevalence of social media is now such that the justice system may have to consider the balance between the need for justice been seen to be done with the impact on those involved in actual trials, who are now not alone being tried by the court but also by the general public via social media.

"A fair balance has to be struck", she added.

Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis centre said the exclusion of the public and stringent reporting during trial make for a "better journey" for the alleged victim and family members.

"The fact the media are present allows justice to be seen to be done but excluding the public allows for a less fraught trial", she added.

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