Raft of changes to rape trials in Northern Ireland are 'ready to go'

Former justice minister Claire Sugden says the Republic's model is a good starting point. Picture by Mal McCann
Former justice minister Claire Sugden says the Republic's model is a good starting point. Picture by Mal McCann

A RAFT of changes to rape trials in Northern Ireland are "ready to go", but have been stalled by the collapse of devolution, a former justice minister has revealed.

Claire Sugden, who was minister for justice until bitter in-fighting between Sinn Féin and the DUP brought down the executive in January 2017, said if a minister was in place improvements could be introduced "straight away".

The nine-week rugby rape trial has brought into focus what critics describe as major deficiencies in the criminal justice system around cases involving sex crimes.

The woman who alleged she had been raped by Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, spent eight days on the stand, while the defendants each spent less than four hours in the witness box.

There have been calls for the public gallery to be closed during rape and sex abuse cases, with that section of Court 12 at Laganside packed for all 42 days of the case, and the source of loud jeering and scoffing while the accuser gave her testimony.

Following the acquittal of Jackson, Olding and their co-accused Blane McIlroy - charged with exposure - and Rory Harrison, who was charged with perverting the course of justice, the intense press coverage of the case has given rise to calls for anonymity to be extended to defendants in the case as it is in the Republic.

It has been argued that in addition to the protection it would afford to those accused who are later found not guilty, it would also protect the accuser from having their anonymity breached in retaliation by supporters of publicly-named defendants.

During the trial the complainant in the case was named online.

Yesterday, it was reported that the Republic's justice minister Charlie Flanagan will review the legal protection offered to complainants in sexual assault cases in the wake of the Belfast trial.

Despite it being a different jurisdiction, thousands of protesters took to the streets in the Republic to highlight concerns over how such trials are handled by the state.

Mr Flanagan pointed out, in The Irish Times, that the Republic has "a more robust system" than the north, but pledged to look at legal representation for victims - currently treated solely as `witnesses' for the prosecution and how cases could be dealt with quicker.

Ms Sugden told The Irish News that `direct committal' - which would see specified cases move straight to crown court, bypassing magistrates courts completely - were at an advance stage with the department of justice.

This would significantly speed up the time it takes to bring a case to court and relieve alleged victims of the trauma of having to undergo pre-trial cross-examination by defence lawyers on numerous occasions.

It was originally championed as a way of minimising victim intimidation in paramilitary trials.

"If we were to get a minister tomorrow, he or she could introduce that straight away if it was in their mind to do so," she said.

Unlike the recent introduction of Northern Ireland's version of Clare's Law, which allows people to find out whether their partner has a history of domestic violence, ending `committal procedures' - a move opposed by many lawyers - requires new legislation.

This means it falls to either a new assembly or the British government through direct rule.

Similarly, work is understood to have got to an advanced stage on bringing the north into line with England and Wales where the Ministry of Justice revealed a year ago that rape victims will be spared the ordeal of giving evidence in court, with pre-recorded testimony.

In theory their cross-examination can also be pre-recorded and then played to the jury during the trial.

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Political leadership would be necessary for any of the changes mooted in the Republic, Ms Sugden believes.

"The model is there in the Republic of Ireland. The fact that it exists shows there is a precedent and it can be done," she said.

"There are no victims' voices in the process. When a crime has been alleged it will be the PPS (public prosecution service) who will decide whether to go against that defendant, whether they have the evidence to take it to court.

"There are independent advocates for victims, trained with knowledge of the law specifically for victims of sexual abuse and violence - but there are only two across Northern Ireland.

"The Department of Justice is thinking along the right lines, but it is not being matched with investment."