Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Why the Gillen review into the way sex crime is handled must not be allowed to gather dust

Sir John's thoughtful and timely report should not fall victim to stagnation at the Assembly, argues Alban Maginness

In a timely reminder before the Christmas holidays, Victim Support NI urged the public, especially those directly affected by serious sexual crime, to heed the call by Sir John Gillen to respond by January 18, 2019, to his interim report that outlined a series of draft recommendations to reform the way in which our courts deal with serious sexual crime.

Sir John was asked to conduct a review into the way serious sexual criminal cases are dealt with by our courts. His report, which is exceptionally readable and lacking in legal jargon, makes sad reading about the current state of our legal process in dealing with these serious cases.

His report is direct, as one would expect from its author, a widely experienced and forthright former judge. He does not mince his words and is bluntly critical of the way in which these sensitive and most traumatic cases are dealt with.

He has highlighted startling figures, such as the time it takes from an initial complaint of a crime to the conclusion of the case. Here it takes 943 days - almost three years - for rape cases to be completed. In Britain, the time taken is about half of that taken here.

Given the longevity of the process and the anxiety that it produces for the victim, is it any wonder that complainants get fed up and refuse to go on with their cases? A shocking 40% of complainants drop out during the process.

Sir John is concerned about these issues and has recommended a number of ways in which to cut down on excessive delay by speedier and more intensive case management and better use of technology.

There is also a huge under-reporting of serious sexual crime. About 1,000 rape cases were reported in 2017/18, but it is estimated that 5,000 other cases were not reported to the police.

This vast under-reporting raises the question: why is there such reluctance? But when you consider the excessive delay in processing cases, the stress and strain of living through all that for almost three years and then the public nature of the trial, where despite the fact that, in law, your identity is protected, but nonetheless you are still required to appear in a public court under the curious gaze of the general public, then it is not too hard to understand.

There is also the increasingly serious risk of the publication of the complainant's name, or indeed personal photographs, on an unregulated and irresponsible social media site. Sir John says that this also requires fixing.

Dealing with these issues, he has proposed a radical solution: that the general public be excluded from these trials. Attendance would be restricted to certain family members and others that are associated with the complainant, or the accused, and that attendance be supervised by the trial judge.

Sir John also proposes stricter controls over the use of social media during the course of a trial, making the social media site liable for unlawful publication.

Much of what Sir John suggests will be welcomed by the public - anxious to see justice being fairly obtained in these cases and an end to the re-traumatising of victims.

But more controversial is Sir John's refusal to recommend that those accused of sexual crime should be granted anonymity before and during their trial.

While he is still open to persuasion on this issue, he believes that naming those charged could lead to the benefit of other victims coming forward. Therefore, he does not recommend anonymity for the accused. However, there is a strong contrary argument that, in the interests of justice and a fair trial, a person accused of such serious offences should have the same entitlement as the complainant, ie for their identity to be kept anonymous.

Such is the opprobrium and loss of reputation involved in being an accused in these cases, an exception should properly be made.

Interestingly, in the Republic, this is granted to an accused and has worked there without controversy. We could profitably learn and borrow from their judicial experience.

It has to be borne in mind that, even though a person has been acquitted in court, there is always the risk of an unfair and damaging stigma attaching to that person's reputation. For an innocent person, this is too great a burden to have to carry for the rest of their life.

Sir John's interim report is refreshing and radical in scope and, hopefully, will be adopted.

But in the absence of a functioning Assembly, it is hard to see it being fully implemented in the short term, given the fact that the law will have to be amended and extra spending resources be allocated.

This report could well be another innocent victim of the stand-off between the two sectarian dinosaurs at Stormont.

  • To respond to Sir John Gillen's interim report, go to https://consultations.nidirect.gov.uk/doj-independent-bodies/the- gillen-review/ by Friday, January 18

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