Two quizzed over claims woman at centre of rugby rape trial was identified on social media
Police have questioned two people for allegedly naming on social media the woman at the centre of the rape trial involving two Ulster and Ireland rugby players.
The news came as a solicitor for Stuart Olding, who was cleared of rape, warned that his client’s legal team was monitoring ongoing commentary on social media and elsewhere, and would consider action where libel laws were breached.
Complainants in rape and other sexual assault cases are guaranteed the right to lifetime anonymity. However, during the trial the name of the woman who alleged rape appeared on the internet. A photograph purporting to be of her was also shared via online messenger services.
Paddy Jackson and Mr Olding were both unanimously cleared by a jury on Wednesday after a marathon 42-day trial at Belfast Crown Court.
Last night police said officers had questioned two people under laws prohibiting publication of the name or images of a rape complainant. Their files have now been passed to prosecutors, who will determine whether any action will be taken.
The PSNI told the Belfast Telegraph: “There is an ongoing police investigation and two people have been interviewed in relation to an offence under section five of the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992.
“Two files have been forwarded to the Public Prosecution Service for consideration.”
Mr Olding’s solicitor Paul Dougan warned people expressing their views following the acquittals of his client and three other men to remain within the law and respect the jury’s decision.
He said the online commentary around the trial had been “unprecedented”.
“If people abuse social media and public platforms and promulgate hateful or offensive or abusive messaging, where a criminal offence has been committed, then of course the police should investigate it,” he said.
“If any of these defendants were on the receiving end of a tirade of abusive vitriol that crosses that line, then of course the police should investigate that as they would any other case.”
It is not believed the PSNI has received a complaint from any of the four defendants.
Mr Olding (25) was found not guilty by a jury of eight men and three women of forcing a woman to perform oral sex on him in June 2016.
Mr Jackson (26) was cleared of one charge of rape and a charge of sexual assault.
Blane McIlroy (26) was found not guilty of exposure, and Rory Harrison (25) was acquitted of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
Addressing the unprecedented fallout following Wednesday’s unanimous verdicts — including a number of rallies held yesterday across Northern Ireland and the Republic — Mr Dougan urged caution.
“People are expressing a view, and as a lawyer I can’t oppose that,” he said. “I can’t criticise people wanting to assemble and make themselves heard.
“They have to stay within the law, including the law around defamation, and they must respect the jury’s verdict in the same way we would have been required had it gone the other way. The four men in this case were all found not guilty of the charges against them.
“As with every trial, they started with the presumption of innocence, they went through a full trial. They were acquitted unanimously by the jury. People are entitled to express their views, but they’ve got to be careful how they do it and what exactly it is they’re trying to say, because the verdict in this case was clear on all counts and it has to be respected.
“We are absolutely across what is being said, and we will continue to be. We would not rule out taking action if defamation laws were breached.”
He said the situation might not have arisen if the case had been tried in the Republic, as the accused parties would not have been named unless convicted.
Media lawyer Paul McDonnell said anyone who made comment on the trial online had to stay within strict legal parameters or risk prosecution.
“Consistent with the enshrined principle of freedom of expression, any person is at liberty to comment upon the issues arising out of this and any trial,” he said.
“However, whilst the reporting of or repeating of evidence that was given at the trial will be protected by legal privilege, the same does not apply to comments or statements made on social media which go beyond that which was given in evidence at the trial.
“If any such statement is defamatory of any individual, that individual is at liberty to sue the maker or publisher of the statement for defamation.”
Mr McDonnell also warned that those carrying placards at a series of rallies could also face libel actions.
“Any defamatory comments made against particular individuals either verbally or on banners or placards may expose those making such comments to liability in terms of defamation,” he added.
Joe McVeigh, who acted for Mr Jackson, called for action to stop trials being prejudiced by social media. He said: “We invite the office of the Lord Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the Public Prosecution Service to enter into fresh discussions with us to look at more robust mechanisms that can strike an effective balance between everyone’s rights, but that properly secure the integrity of our criminal justice system.”
Throughout the trial the defence raised “failings” in the police investigation.
Mr Dougan said “all legal options” would be considered by Mr Olding and his lawyers in addressing these. He added: “We have been very critical of the police investigation throughout the course of the trial.
“In the coming weeks, once the dust has settled, we’ll be looking at the evidence that emerged through the cross-examination of all the prosecution witnesses. If there is any course of action available to us, then we will look at that in conjunction with Mr Olding and his family.”
Mr Olding and Mr Jackson are to pursue a privacy lawsuit against the BBC following their acquittal. The action, initiated in 2016, was put on hold pending the outcome of the rape trial. The civil suit was filed after the identities of the men were reported prior to them being charged.