Northern Ireland

Social media 'may force sex trial changes' says Sir John Gillen

Sir John Gillen
Image caption Sir John says social media is "a vital factor" in considering how to reform how sexual conduct cases are dealt with

A retired judge who is conducting a review of sexual offences cases in Northern Ireland believes it is vital to tackle jurors' use of social media.

"The hammer of the law should come down on those who indulge in misconduct," Sir John Gillen said.

He was speaking on BBC Radio 4's Law In Action.

His review follows a high profile case which saw Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding cleared of rape.

The verdict came in March after a nine-week trial.

Sir John also suggested the public could be excluded from court, saying that the complainant's anonymity in sexual offences cases has "disappeared" because that person's name was often "bandied about on social media".

Image copyright Getty Images/Canva

Currently almost all trials are open to the public.

He said that in a small place like Belfast if people post about a case on social media it can mean the "law becomes a farce" with photographs and the past history of the complainant, "completely untrue in most instances", being disseminated.

Sir John said he was also considering recommending anonymity for defendants in sexual offences trials, saying he has met people acquitted of sexual offences whose lives has been ruined by the spreading of rumours about them on social media.

Complainants are granted lifetime anonymity in sexual offence cases, but defendants are not.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Stuart Olding (left) and Paddy Jackson were cleared of rape charges after a nine-week trial in Belfast

'Unacceptably daunting'

"The concept of open justice is fundamental to our legal system," he said.

"But in small local jurisdictions, we do have to look at that possibility of excluding the public from these trials, at least to make some efforts to control social media."

Sir John also said that he was only six weeks into a nine month inquiry and that he had to have an open mind.

However, he said he was certain that:

  • "The pathway from complaint to trial is too long"
  • "The trial process itself is unacceptably daunting"
  • "We as a society... need to reassess our whole approach to the trauma of serious sexual offences"

He said social media was "a vital factor in all three of these aspects".

Surprise

The presenter of Law in Action, legal expert Joshua Rozenberg, said he was surprised at Sir John's comments so early into his review.

But Mr Rozenberg pointed out that nothing Sir John said was a final proposal:

"These are quite radical suggestions that his is considering.... he is really floating these ideas for the public to comment on."

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