| 18.2°C Belfast

Complainants in sex crime trials could give evidence from outside courtroom under new plan

Close

Sir John Gillen (Liam McBurney/PA)

Sir John Gillen (Liam McBurney/PA)

PA Wire/PA Images

Sir John Gillen (Liam McBurney/PA)

Proposals to improve outcomes in cases of serious sexual assault in Northern Ireland could see complainants giving evidence from outside the courtroom.

The recommendation includes the establishment of a new remote evidence centre, and transferring relevant cases to the Crown Court at an earlier stage.

The Department of Justice plan comes in the wake of the Gillen Review, led by Sir John Gillen, which examined how the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland deals with such cases.

To date just 11% of the recommendations have been enacted, including the expedition of sexual offences involving children under 13 and an advertising campaign focused on consent.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said the plan "marks an important step towards the delivery of better outcomes in these cases".

It was revealed earlier this year that just one in four rape cases in Northern Ireland ends with a conviction.

Sir John's report made a total of 253 recommendations. It was set up in the aftermath of concerns about a number of high profile alleged rape cases, including the 2018 rugby rape trial involving two Ulster players.

The implementation plan for the outstanding recommendations was developed by the Department of Justice with partners including the PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service and the courts service.

A remote evidence centre would, it says, stop the re-traumatisation of complainants by ensuring they do not meet the accused while giving evidence at court.

There will also be reform of the committal process in the legal system to ensure that complainants only have to give oral evidence in court once, while relevant cases can bypass the committal process entirely and move to the Crown Court at an earlier stage.

Other plans include the appointment of officers to ensure cases are progressed through the legal system efficiently and that any delays are addressed, and to improve the experience of complainants where details of their previous sexual history is divulged as part of a case.

There are also plans to address "jury rape myths" to dispel prejudicial myths held by the public and potential jurors and increase juror awareness in relation to their responsibilities around social media.

The phased programme was originally planned to be introduced over a three-period, but this has been extended to five years as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. £1.6m in funding has been committed to the plan this year.

Close

Justice Minister Naomi Long

Justice Minister Naomi Long

Justice Minister Naomi Long

Mrs Long welcomed its publication.

“Cases involving sexual crime are some of the most intrusive and difficult for victims to endure," she said.

"We want to do everything in our power to support victims of these crimes through every stage of their journey through the justice system.

“I want to thank colleagues across partner organisations for their efforts to take action to address the issues raised in the Gillen Review to date, and for engaging with my department to develop this plan to further that work collaboratively.

"It is my hope that working together, we can deliver real change across the justice system.”

Sinn Fein MLA Linda Dillon expressed "deep concern" at the speed at which the recommendations are being introduced.

“This is a slow rate of progress on what is a priority issue," she said.

The party's justice spokesperson said that the "rapid implementation" of the plan should be an "urgent priority" for the Justice Minister.

“I particularly would like to see urgent action in the development of Remote Evidence Centres, better protections for child victims, and increasing awareness about consent and dispelling rape myths," Ms Dillon said.

"I will continue to ensure that these issues are at the top of the Justice Minister's agenda.”

Belfast Telegraph