Sir John Gillen has presented his report on the handling of sexual assault and rape trials in Northern Ireland. This report was commissioned after a high profile rape trial saw two men acquitted of rape and two others acquitted of other offences connected to the same incident. The Review group heard from more than 200 organisations and individuals and considered the way these offences were handled across the globe.
The report makes 250 recommended changes of which 16 are described as “key recommendations”. Sir John has indicated than many of the proposed changes could be implemented within “weeks and months” as 75% of the recommendations would not need legislative changes. Whether the recommendations could be implemented in Northern Ireland in the absence of an assembly could be a different issue.
The “key recommendations” are:
- Restrict access to trials to family members of complainant and defendant and not open to public
- Cross examination to be carried out away from the court and pre-recorded (this would initially be for vulnerable people but ultimately extended to all complainants)
- Complainants to be provided with publically funded legal representation up to the trial but not at the trial itself
- Measures should be taken to educate and therefore combat “rape myths” and stereotypes such as views on dress, alcohol or the way a person acts
- Legislate to deal with the dangers of social media
- Judges to be more robust in preventing improper cross examination about previous sexual history
- Tackle excessive delay in judicial system
- Look at and restructure the disclosure process (topical in light of the recent discussions in E&W over access to complainants social network history)
- Address legislation to stop juries bringing sexual stereotypes in to play
- No change to the law regarding anonymity of the accused
- Research into sexual offences and looking into the experiences of them
- Implement changes to minimise traumatisation of children and vulnerable adults throughout the investigative and judicial process
- Training regarding the rape myths, jury perceptions, trauma of victims
- Widen pool of potential jurors but maintain current process of Crown Court trials with a jury without need for gender/sexuality quotas
- Consider alternative means of disposal such as restorative justice ideas which are victim led
- Conduct an impact assessment into the recommendations to include the potential costs of the recommendations.
The Department of Justice has set up a special group to consider the report and the recommendations and implement the review. The lack of an Assembly will almost certainly delay any immediate implementation but it remains to be seen what aspects of the recommendations could be implemented without ministerial approval.
Fintan Canavan, Partner, BLM