Northern Ireland news

Man pleads guilty to naming woman at centre of rugby rape trial

Sean McFarland (35) has admitted breaching a lifetime ban on reporting the identity of the complainant in the rugby rape trial

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.

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McFarland (36) of Rinnalea Gardens in the west of the city, was charged with publishing her name on a date between February 7 and 9 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 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. 

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A review into how sexual assault cases are handled was begun earlier this year following the high-profile trial of rugby players Stuart Olding (left) and Paddy Jackson, who were acquitted of rape

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