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Proposals to grant anonymity to people accused of sex crimes

The experience of complainants is also addressed in the review.

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Belfast Crown Court (Niall Carson/PA)

Belfast Crown Court (Niall Carson/PA)

Belfast Crown Court (Niall Carson/PA)

People accused of sexual offences could be given anonymity for life, unless convicted of the crime, under proposed reforms of how sex crimes are dealt with.

The recommendations contained in the review of protections of vulnerable witnesses in investigations of sex crimes also address issues around a victim’s identity being revealed on social media.

The review, chaired by barrister Tom O’Malley, comes in the wake of a high-profile rape trial in Belfast.

Rugby players Paddy Jackson was acquitted of rape and sexual assault while fellow player Stuart Olding was cleared of rape, following the trial at Belfast Crown Court in 2018.

Two other men were also acquitted in connection with the case.

The trial and its outcome brought attention to the conduct of rape trials and the experiences of complainants on both sides of the border.

At present, in the Republic of Ireland, only those accused of rape are granted anonymity, and the new reforms would see it extended to people accused of sexual assault.

The report recommends updating legislation that is used to prosecute people for revealing a complainant’s identity in the media to also include social media.

Among the report’s 50 recommendations includes the establishment of preliminary trial hearings “as soon as possible” to deal with legal issues and reduce delays in the judicial system.

The report also states that, if the accused’s defence team wants to question a complainant about his or her previous sexual experience, that it should be made clear at a preliminary hearing.

It also said there should be any statutory provision restricting the questioning of complainants about their sexual history it must strike a balance between ensuring a fair trial for the accused and respecting the victim’s rights to personal privacy and human dignity.

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Stock photo of social media apps (Nick Ansell/PA)

Stock photo of social media apps (Nick Ansell/PA)

PA

Stock photo of social media apps (Nick Ansell/PA)

It said that an outright ban on such questioning could create the risk of an occasional miscarriage of justice and would therefore be unacceptable.

The working group also recommended a formal code of practice to govern the collection and disclosure of a complainant’s text messages, social media and internet usage.

It also called for a government-sponsored programme of public education on the meaning and importance of consent in the context of sexual relationships and sexual activity.

The group also said that a website containing comprehensive information for victims of sexual crime should be set up and regularly promoted to the public.

It said the information on the website should be presented in a clear and accessible manner and deal with matters such as the reporting of sexual offences, the trial process, the availability of legal advice, and the availability of counselling, therapeutic and other assistance for victims.

It also called for all gardai working in front line policing to be trained in how to engage with complainants of sexual crime and with other witnesses, including suspects, who may be vulnerable because of their age or disability.

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) chief executive Noeline Blackwell said: “This report is a clear recognition from Government that it is not appropriate to treat crimes of sexual violence just like any other crime.

“Such crimes are a deep violation of the dignity and the person of the victim and can cause sometimes lifelong harm.

“This marks out the trial of such offences from other criminal trials.”

She added that the positive reforms will “greatly improve” the process for victims.

The council of The Bar Of Ireland welcomed the publication but said that the provision of adequate resources and funding is “critical” to make the changes.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that the report focuses on the victims and ensures that there is a system where victims of sexual assault and sexual crimes know what information is available to them.

“Most importantly if they come forward that they will be listened to, that they will be heard, that they will be treated with respect and dignity, and that they will be supported through what is a very difficult process,” Ms McEntee added.

She said that her department will spend the next ten weeks putting in place a “clear implementation” plan.

PA