Belfast Telegraph

Review into handling of sex offence cases welcomed

By Victoria Leonard

A victim support group has welcomed an independent review into the handling of serious sexual offence cases here, which launched yesterday.

The review, which was commissioned by the Criminal Justice Board, will be led by retired Lord Justice of Appeal and former High Court Judge Sir John Gillen, and supported by an advisory panel.

It is expected to be completed by January 2019.

The announcement comes amid ongoing public debate following the high-profile trial of Ulster and Ireland rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding for rape. Both men were acquitted of all charges.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) said the review was "being established to consider the law and procedure covering the development and progression of cases of alleged serious sexual offences, taking account of experience from recent cases in Northern Ireland and developments in neighbouring jurisdictions".

The review is expected to examine support for victims and witnesses, measures to ensure the anonymity of the complainant, the arguments for defendant anonymity and the disclosure of unused material.

It may also consider the impact of social media on trials, reporting restrictions and public attendance at trials.

In a full-page advert in last week's Belfast Telegraph, Victim Support NI, Women's Aid NI, Nexus and the Men's Advisory Project revealed they had written to the permanent secretary of the DoJ and the Lord Chief Justice to request a review.

Yesterday, Victim Support NI chief executive Geraldine Hanna welcomed the review.

She said it "demonstrates to the public that the Department of Justice have swiftly acted on our call for a full and independent review of the way cases of sexual violence are handled by the criminal justice system here in Northern Ireland".

"We are pleased that this review will take into account considerations and suggestions from all relevant criminal justice agencies and are grateful that victims organisations will be included, as this will ensure that the voice of the victim is fully represented in this debate," she said.

Ms Hanna added that "the current system does not work well for victims, and now is the time for change".

"If we are to truly ensure access to justice and achieve better outcomes for all court users it is essential that the views and experiences of those directly experiencing the system inform this review," she said.

"This is an opportunity for reform, and for Northern Ireland to develop an innovative and improved system in which we can all have the utmost confidence."

She added that the nine-month review timescale "balances the time needed to comprehensively investigate and discuss the issues, with the need to reduce delays in the system for victims waiting on their cases to come to court".

She concluded: "We look forward to actively contributing to the review, and to a new, improved justice system for future victims of sexual violence."

Alliance MLA David Ford, who last week wrote to other political leaders asking them to join his calls for a review, said there was "undoubtedly a pressing need to provide protections for both complainants and defendants in what is a difficult area".

"There are a number of lessons need to be learned from the recent trial at Belfast Crown Court and I am confident Sir John Gillen will do a thorough job in looking at them," he said.

"It is also important anyone who has concerns about this issue brings it forward and contributes to the review."

Belfast Telegraph

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