Belfast Telegraph

Quarter of sex crime suspects unmasked after media bans lifted ... but MLA unsatisfied

By Adrian Rutherford

Court orders which banned the media from identifying dozens of alleged sex offenders have been lifted in a quarter of cases.

The move follows a review requested by Northern Ireland's top judge.

The Office of the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan had written to solicitors after it emerged 61 suspects had been granted anonymity under the 1992 Sexual Offences Act.

In 15 cases – one in four – the original reporting restrictions were deemed invalid.

In the Ards court division, which takes in Downpatrick, Newtownards and Bangor, 10 of the 19 anonymity orders were removed or amended.

However, in 46 other cases across Northern Ireland's courts, reporting restrictions remain in place.

The figures were released following an Assembly question from Lord Morrow.

The DUP MLA has voiced concerns that too many anonymity orders have been handed out.

"We are supposed to live in a transparent society and the courts, above all places, must be transparent in delivering justice," he said.

The anonymity orders which were reviewed were granted under section 1 (2) of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

It bans publication of any details which could lead to the victim being identified.

However, Justice Minister David Ford confirmed some courts had wrongly used the legislation to grant anonymity to suspects.

The Lord Chief Justice's office subsequently wrote to solicitors asking them to justify why their client required anonymity.

So far 15 orders have been amended or removed.

In a written reply to Lord Morrow, Mr Ford said: "In January 2014 the Office of the Lord Chief Justice (OLCJ) became aware through media reports that some courts were making orders under section 1(2) of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 (the 1992 Act) prohibiting the media from publishing the identity of defendants in sexual offences cases.

"On February 6 2014 the OLCJ wrote to solicitors acting for defendants in cases which were currently before the court to clarify that the 1992 Act did not give courts the authority to make such an order and to announce that it was carrying out a review of orders that had been made."

Mr Ford said solicitors for the relevant defendants were informed that the orders would be removed unless they indicated within 21 days that they intended to make submissions that their client had some other legitimate ground for seeking anonymity. The review covers all relevant cases still active on February 6.

Lord Morrow said anonymity went against the principles of open justice.

"I am opposed to any prohibition on the exposure of criminal activities," he added.

"I know there are some times when it has to be done for very good reasons, and I accept that, but as has been demonstrated here there are 25% of cases where it didn't need to be done."

FACTFILE

* Antrim court division: 13 orders granted, none amended or removed

* Ards court division: 19 orders granted, 10 amended or removed

* Armagh/South Down: Eight orders granted, none amended or removed

* Belfast court division: 10 orders granted, two amended or removed

* Craigavon court division: Four orders granted, two amended or removed

* Fermanagh/South Tyrone court division: Two orders granted, one amended or removed

* Londonderry court division: Five orders granted, none amended or removed

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