Decision not to appeal sex offender anonymity ruling only sensible outcome - The Irish News view

Judgment striking down defective law was landmark victory for public interest journalism

The chamber of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Parliament Buildings, Stormont
A judge pointed to a lack of proper debate around public interest issues during the legislative process (Liam McBurney/PA)

The decision not to appeal a landmark court ruling that struck down a defective law governing identification of sex offence suspects is a sensible and welcome outcome to a case with crucial implications for public interest journalism.

The Irish News joined with other media organisations earlier this year in challenging sections of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act 2022.

While the bulk of the legislation was an appropriate attempt to update the law around serious sexual offences in light of the Gillen review, there was considerable concern over provisions relating to anonymity for those suspected of crimes but never charged.

The act made it a criminal offence, carrying a threat of up to six months in prison, for journalists, abuse victims or anyone else to publicly identify suspected serial offenders such as Jimmy Savile or Malachy Finegan either during their lifetime or for 25 years after their death.

And crucially, while a mechanism existed to set out what may be compelling reasons to name a person after death, only the chief constable or a suspect themselves could make such an application during their lifetime.

In May, Mr Justice Humphreys ruled that the legislation – which only applied in Northern Ireland – was not compatible with press freedom and it was hoped the comprehensive nature of the judgment would avoid an appeal, at further cost to both media organisations and the public purse.

Yesterday, Justice Minister Naomi Long said that while she had been “minded” to appeal on the basis of constitutional issues raised, other executive parties did not share her concerns and she had decided not to proceed.

Justice Minister Naomi Long has said she will not appeal a High Court ruling contentious sexual offender anonymity legislation
Justice Minister Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)

The minister said legal advice was that “the ruling will have a substantial effect on assembly processes for scrutinising its laws, as well as for executive ministers and all departments in taking forward legislation”.

This appears to relate to the judge’s finding of a lack of proper debate around public interest during the legislative process.

In essence, there is a concern that the standard the assembly is being held to could make future challenges to other legislation difficult to defend.

It must be said that throughout the judicial review process, media organisations were acutely aware of the high legal bar required for a judge to interfere with the expressed will of a democratically-elected legislature. It was only the obvious failure to strike a fair balance between the rights of sex offence suspects and journalists in this case that led to such a clear ruling.

Assembly members hold a grave responsibility in enacting legislation that can impinge on every aspect of our lives. It is right that they, like the media, be accountable for that work.

Should this legislation be revisited in future, it will be vital that it receives sufficient scrutiny to ensure all relevant rights are balanced and any further unintended consequences avoided.