Northern Ireland news

Senior judges considering reform to the way sexual violence cases are handled by courts following rugby rape trial

 Paddy Jackson (right) and Stuart Olding were found not guilty of rape last month. Pictures by Hugh Russell

SENIOR judges are considering steps to reform the way sexual violence cases are handled by the courts, as a leading victim support organisation today calls for an "immediate independent review".

Discussions at the highest level of the judiciary were initiated by the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan following the rugby rape trial.

Ulster and Ireland internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were found not guilty of rape last month following a nine-week trial.

Jackson was also acquitted of a further charge of sexual assault.

However, the high-profile trial has led to criticisms of the way such cases are conducted, with the eight days that the complainant was forced to spend in the witness box among issues cited.

The defendants each spent less than four hours giving evidence.

Trial judge Patricia Smyth is among those being consulted by Sir Declan on how the process can be improved in the absence of new legislation.

The Irish News revealed last week that a raft of changes to rape trials in Northern Ireland are "ready to go", but have been stalled by the collapse of devolution.

Claire Sugden, minister for justice when the executive collapsed in January 2017, said that if a minister was in place improvements could be introduced "straight away".

Thousands of people across Ireland took to the streets in the immediate aftermath of the rugby trial to demand reform of the criminal justice system.

Victim Support NI has now written to the Department of Justice permanent secretary and the Lord Chief Justice to request an independent review of how the system handles sexual violence cases.

In an open letter in today's Irish News, endorsed by Nexus NI, the Women's Aid Federation and the Men's Advisory Project, it sets out why they feel "now is the time to take action".

It stresses that a review must take account of victim experiences "from reporting, through to the decision to prosecute, the court process itself and how the low-level of convictions for rape and sexual violence should be addressed".

The permanent secretary and Sir Declan have been asked to consider "what legislative changes need to be made and how adequate and effective support for victims/survivors can be secured throughout the whole of the process".

Geraldine Hanna, chief executive of Victim Support NI, said "increased public interest" in the criminal justice system "provides an opportunity to bring to light" concerns the organisations have held for many years.

"While there have been changes within the system, driven by a greater understanding of the impact sexual crime has on individuals, there is still a considerable way to go," she said.

"No review should be completed without victims/survivors' voices and so we have requested that the review body should include representatives of victim-centred organisations."

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice said he "is aware of the issues raised by the recent high profile trial".

"He has begun discussions with the trial judge and other senior Crown Court judges to consider whether there are any steps the courts can take that do not require legislation to deal with some of the issues," she said.

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