Belfast Telegraph

I oppose blanket anonymity for rape accused, says Stuart Olding's QC

Frank O’Donoghue defended Stuart Olding at rugby rape trial
Frank O’Donoghue defended Stuart Olding at rugby rape trial
Stuart Olding

By Staff Reporter

Rape defendants should not receive anonymity before conviction unless they are likely to suffer "exceptional" damage to their reputations, a barrister who represented rugby player Stuart Olding has suggested.

Frank O'Donoghue QC represented former Ireland and Ulster player Olding during a nine-week trial which saw the sportsman acquitted of rape along with his co-accused, Paddy Jackson.

The two players were unanimously cleared of raping the woman, then aged 19, at a party in Mr Jackson's house following a night out in Belfast in June 2016.

Under the judicial system in Northern Ireland, both men were named publicly throughout the case.

This differs from the law in the Republic, which ensures individuals accused of rape cannot be named unless convicted.

Following the case the pair had their contracts revoked by Ulster Rugby and the Irish Rugby Football Union.

Both now play for clubs in France.

At the same trial, two other former Ulster team-mates were acquitted of related charges.

Blane McIlroy (26) was unanimously cleared of a charge of exposure, while Rory Harrison (25) was unanimously found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information. The case saw huge international interest, and in the aftermath, retired judge Sir John Gillen was asked to conduct a review of Northern Ireland's laws on rape.

While recommending significant reforms, unveiled last month, he rejected suggestions that alleged rapists should be granted anonymity pre-conviction, unless naming them could identify the complainant. Mr O'Donoghue said he thought this was the correct decision, as he believes the naming of a defendant is a fundamental principle of open justice.

"The argument is that why should someone who's up for rape be entitled to anonymity, when if they are up for murder they are not?" he said.

He was speaking at a conference on media reporting of trials, organised by the Irish Sports Law Bar Association on Friday.

The barrister said that the rugby rape trial highlighted a "thorny issue" yet to be addressed in the UK legal system - namely the issue of "incurable reputational damage which cannot be cured by acquittal".

"If we take the experience of the two young men (Olding and Jackson) in this case - as a result of the trial process itself they were unable to earn a living, not only in their own country but in fact in the whole of the UK," he said. In exceptional cases those accused of rape could be granted anonymity if they would not be able to earn a living after the trial even if acquitted, suggested Mr O'Donoghue.

However, former Bar Council chairman Paul McGarry SC said the concept was "slightly troubling", adding it could see more rights afforded to high-profile defendants such as sports stars or politicians.

He said the accused in the Belfast trial struggled to find a club, not because of the trial but because of the uncontested details of the men's poor behaviour - an apparent reference to messages the players shared about the complainant via Whatsapp.

Mr O'Donoghue said the level of public interest had ensured the trial was "a perfect storm". "I don't think I've ever been involved in a case like that before, and I don't think I will again," he added,

Discussion of the trial on Twitter had resulted in the "reductionism" of complex arguments or evidence that presented a real danger of distortion in the reader's perception, he argued.

"You're highlighting one very small aspect of the trial in 240 characters," he explained.

His comments come just weeks after Belfast man Sean McFarland became the first person in Northern Ireland to be convicted for breaching a lifetime ban on reporting the identity of the female complainant at the centre of the rape trial.

The 36-year-old, of Rinnalea Gardens in west Belfast, was fined £300 after pleading guilty to the offence.

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