Belfast Telegraph

Alleged rape victims must be protected, even if it means banning public from courtroom

The criminal justice system should listen to Sir John Gillen's laudable suggestion, says Fionola Meredith

It was the ceiling-to-floor curtain, royal blue in colour, that instantly drew my eye when I walked into Courtroom 12. Behind it, I knew, sat the young woman who had accused Ulster Rugby players of rape, of which they were later acquitted.

I couldn't see her directly, and neither could the other members of the media, nor the people in the packed public gallery beside us.

She was shielded too from the four defendants sitting in the dock, but we could all watch her under cross-examination, because the complainant was being filmed. Her evidence was screened on a large TV monitor, in view of everyone.

I had never attended a rape trial before, so I didn't know exactly what to expect. Shortly after I took my seat in the press box, I was astonished to hear the young woman's name being used in open court.

Not just the judge and jury, but every single member of the public in the gallery heard her name mentioned as she went through the gruelling, combative process required by the court.

How on earth could the woman's identity, which was supposed to be kept a secret for her whole life, have a chance of being properly protected in such circumstances?

The rule of law strictly forbids the public naming of alleged victims in rape and other sex crime cases, but Northern Ireland is a tiny place, the hyper-connected reach of social media is wide, and there will always be loose-lipped, irresponsible fools inclined to breach this order - especially in such a high-profile case.

Sure enough, the complainant's name was soon circulating. Anonymity, I quickly realised, must mean something very different in a legal setting than it does in everyday life.

Now, Sir John Gillen, the retired senior judge appointed to independently review the handling of such cases in Northern Ireland, following the rugby rape trial, has produced his preliminary report.

It is a thorough, wide-ranging and insightful document: clear, compassionate and bold in its vision, yet balanced and fair to both defendants and complainants.

Judge Gillen consulted extensively before publishing it. He said that hearing the experience of complainants was "one of the most harrowing experiences" of his life. And he is clearly listening.

Controversially, Gillen suggests banning the public from serious sexual offences trials, and only allowing close family of the complainant and the defendant to be present, along with members of the press.

I believe in open justice, but having witnessed the shocking behaviour of some people in the public gallery during the rugby rape trial - particularly the sneering, jeering, scoffing and laughing while the complainant was speaking - I think there's a strong case for exclusion. It would surely improve the chances of keeping the names of alleged victims private.

While many people expressed distaste for the disturbingly explicit nature of some media reports on the trial - there were even calls for the media to be banned at one point - the media is not the problem here. Journalists are bound by strict guidelines in their coverage, and they take those responsibilities extremely seriously.

A journalist will never name an anonymous complainant. Their foremost duty is to report accurately on what happens in court, however lurid or unpleasant the details may be.

In my view, it is the nature of the proceedings themselves that need to change, so that prospective complainants are not deterred from coming forward by what Gillen has rightly called "an unacceptably daunting trial process".

The judge also recommended measures to combat pervasive rape myths and stereotypes that might affect the judgment of a jury. These include the harmful and highly inaccurate beliefs that victims provoke rape by how they dress, or that if victims don't scream, shout or fight back, it somehow does not count as rape.

While the report's suggestion of a widespread publicity campaign, in order to educate the public, is welcome, these deeply embedded attitudes - rooted in ignorance and ancient misogyny - are difficult to eradicate.

As Sir John Gillen has realised, the most important thing is to listen as widely and as deeply as possible. He has said that there must be "no voice unheard". Now the criminal justice system - which has sometimes appeared as an aloof, unaccountable and complacent law unto itself - needs to start listening, too.

The way things stand at present, there seems little point in having a screen to hide the identity of alleged rape victims in court, especially in high-profile cases. The potential exposure is so great that the curtain may as well be whisked away.

Belfast Telegraph

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