Northern Ireland

Justice minister’s refusal to rule out appeal against High Court judgement on anonymity for sex offence suspects criticised

Naomi Long has said she wants to ‘carefully consider all my available options’ following ruling

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long
Justice minister Naomi Long. (Liam McBurney/PA)

The refusal of the north’s justice minister to confirm she will not rule out appealing a judgement on life-long anonymity for sex offence suspects has been criticised as “deeply disappointing”.

SDLP Stormont opposition leader Matthew O’Toole criticised a response to an Assembly question on Monday to Naomi Long, urging her to say she will not appeal last week’s High Court judgement.

Mr Justice Humphreys ruled a new law granting anonymity to sex offence suspects is incompatible with press rights to freedom of expression protected by Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

He found that the relevant sections of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 are “not law” and failed to strike a fair balance between suspects’ rights to privacy and press freedom.

The ruling was a victory for the The Irish News and Belfast Telegraph publishers Mediahuis, which joined forces to have sections of the Act declared legally invalid in the review proceedings against Stormont’s Department of Justice.

Sam McBride, Belfast Telegraph and Aeneas Bonner, Irish News and solicitor Fergal McGoldrick at the Belfast High Court. PICTURE: MAL MCANN
Sam McBride, Belfast Telegraph and Aeneas Bonner, Irish News and solicitor Fergal McGoldrick at the Belfast High Court. PICTURE: MAL MCANN

When pressed by Mr O’Toole in the Assembly on whether she would appeal the judgement, Ms Long described it as a “complex and detailed legal ruling, that doesn’t just have implications for this particular piece of legislation, but potentially this house”.

“I will want to carefully consider all my available options and in conjunction with the department’s legal team before arriving at a decision to the best way forward”.

She said the ruling has a “wider bearing on the future functions of the Assembly” adding: “All involved will want to carefully consider if there is the potential for unintended consequences.”

Speaking afterwards, Mr O’Toole said: “The seriousness of the impact of this bad law cannot be overstated. We know that publishers are getting lawyers’ letters warning them off naming deceased sex offenders even after civil courts have awarded compensation to their victims. As Justice Humphreys said in his damning judgment, this is chilling for the most vital public interest journalism.

Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole has called on Communities Minister Gordon Lyons to introduce a comprehensive child poverty strategy
Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole. (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Most concerningly, (Ms Long) refused to confirm to me that she would not appeal the main elements of the court’s judgment. I find that position inexplicable. Even if she wishes to take further legal advice on legal consequences, she could have been clear in accepting the court’s view that the anonymity provisions are simply incompatible with the ECHR and the basic tenets of a free press.”