Editor's Viewpoint: Kangaroo court of social media must be brought to heel
Before discharging the jury in the rugby rape trial, Judge Patricia Smyth told them: "This has probably been the most difficult trial that any jury in Northern Ireland has ever been asked to adjudicate on."
Lasting nine weeks, it was a court case that gripped the public's attention from its opening day due to the status of two of the defendants, Ulster and Ireland rugby stars Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were accused of raping the same 19-year-old student two years ago. Two of their friends, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, were charged with offences connected to events on that night.
While the mainstream media gave the case almost unprecedented daily coverage, the newspaper, radio and television reports were careful to stay firmly within the sub judice rules. On the street, the case was a constant source of conversation with many differing views being expressed.
But comment on social media, particularly Twitter, was unrestrained and created a toxic environment that, Mr Jackson's lawyer pointed out after the not guilty verdicts were returned on all charges faced by the four defendants, led to several days of the trial being lost due to "the intrusive infection of the process".
The judge and lawyers in the case repeatedly warned the jury to avoid reading mainstream or social media reports and to base their judgments solely on the evidence presented to them in court.
The all-pervading nature of social media obviously poses an immense challenge to those engaged in the justice system and their efforts to ensure the integrity of the legal process. Quite what can be done is a question which will tax the minds of many in the future.
Policing the internet is virtually impossible and investigations of possible wrongdoing are painfully slow in comparison to the immediacy of original comments.
In this case, it is understood that police are investigating claims that the young woman was named on social media, which is a breach of the rules that give complainants in rape cases lifetime anonymity.
The judge and lawyers in the case also stressed that this was not a trial of morals or how people behave in their private lives, but rather the prosecution of a serious allegation.
The graphic evidence given during the trial and the nature of the charges faced by the defendants meant that they and the young woman underwent a traumatic time over the past 20 months.
No doubt all would echo the comments made by Mr Olding through his solicitor at the conclusion of the trial. He stressed that while he had committed no criminal offence, he deeply regretted the events of that night in June 2016. He also expressed his sorrow at the hurt caused to the complainant.
The police investigation of the young woman's complaint drew criticism during the trial and in its aftermath, but it has to be accepted that the evidence gathered was accepted by the Public Prosecution Service as meeting the test for prosecution and that the charges laid stood until the jury returned its not guilty verdicts. That would suggest the investigation was sufficiently robust to set before a jury as the law demands.
Now the four defendants and the complainant can go on with their lives, although Mr Jackson and Mr Olding await another verdict from the Ulster and Irish rugby authorities, who are reviewing these events. That verdict will determine the future direction of their careers.