US victim of Belfast rape says banning public from trials is right
A US woman who was raped by a teenager while hiking in a Belfast forest has welcomed a proposal to ban members of the public from rape trials, saying they should not be a "spectacle".
Winnie Li, who was assaulted in Colin Glen Forest Park in 2008, was speaking after Sir John Gillen published his review of how Northern Ireland's justice system deals with serious sexual offences.
The Gillen Review began last May, following the trial of former Ulster and Ireland rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape.
The former judge's report endorses about 250 changes, with 16 described as key. Most can be implemented without legislation; but some could be held up due to Stormont's suspension.
Among the recommendations is banning the public from attending rape trials in order to protect the complainant. The families of those involved would still be allowed to attend, along with members of the Press, to act as the eyes and ears of the public.
The review also considered the effect of social media.
"Jurors are hearing and reading matters that they should not be and the idea of protecting the anonymity of the complainant disappears," he said.
"The chances of the jury hearing completely prejudicial material is also something we have to address. Even if it's only two or three jurors hear this, that is enough to pollute the stream of justice, so I've made a huge number of recommendations about that."
Ms Li says banning public access to rape trials can significantly lessen the stress on both the alleged victim and perpetrator, and their families.
She said: "I am glad someone has finally taken the time to speak to victims and specialist organisations and realise that our insight and experiences can help create a fairer, more empathetic criminal justice system.
"Often the experiences of victims are pitied by the public and promptly forgotten.
"This report represents a chance for our perspectives to be taken seriously, to lead to positive change.
"If I had known the public was banned from attending the scheduled trial against my rapist, it would have made the lead-up to that more tolerable for me, at a time when I was very vulnerable, emotionally and psychologically.
"These trials should not be a public spectacle; they can be gruelling and intense ordeals for victims."
Former SDLP councillor Mairia Cahill, who claims she was sexually abused as a 16-year-old by an IRA member, said victims are "at the heart" of the Gillen review.
Having contributed to the report, Ms Cahill said: "Sir John Gillen has done extensive work by not just listening to victims of sexual violence but also hearing them.
"Part of his report refers to almost universal support for restricting access to the public from rape trials which is important for victims in terms of reducing stress and to stop them feeling as though they're objects on display.
"However, some legislative changes are going to be held up by the lack of an Executive, which is a shameful indictment of society when they are badly needed here."
Caroline Counihan from the Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) said there could be no justice unless survivors can be confident to proceed within the justice system knowing they will be treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity.
"If the recommendations within the Gillen Report are implemented they should go a long way towards that aim," she added.
SDLP policing and justice spokesperson Dolores Kelly said it was important that the recommendations are accepted in full, "as any cherry picking will undermine the report and what is trying to be achieved".
Sinn Fein victims' spokesperson Linda Dillon said: "Victims have been let down by the system for too long, and I'm hopeful that this report will be the first stage in ensuring that victims are supported and that justice is no longer impeded for victims."
Alliance councillor Kate Nicholl said: "Victims of rape and sexual assault deserve their dignity protected and justice served, and I am hopeful these recommendations will help do that."
A special group has now been set up by the Department of Justice to oversee the implementation of the Gillen Review.