Belfast Telegraph

Social media serious threat to principle of open and fair justice

Editor's Viewpoint

The rugby rape trial may be over with the acquittal of four men - two of them Irish internationals - on all charges, but the aftershocks of what was a seismic case continue to rumble strongly.

Thousands of people attended rallies across Ireland yesterday expressing solidarity with the woman at the centre of the case and calling for change in the judicial process in rape and abuse cases.

While it must be stressed that the four men have been found not guilty by a jury, who absorbed all the evidence in what was a very complex hearing, those who took to the streets yesterday were exercising their right in a democracy to voice their opinions.

Freedom of expression is a right enshrined in law, but it always comes with the caveat that such freedom must be exercised responsibly. The men in this case underwent a lengthy trial and the verdicts of the jury must be respected.

What the case has done is throw a spotlight on the legal process in cases of sexual offences and led to a demand for an overhaul of the way they are conducted.

A particular concern recognised by all sides in the trial was the fact that the complainant's name became common knowledge to members of the public attending the trial, through its frequent mention during evidence.

Complainants are entitled to lifelong immunity - unless they waive that right - but this young woman's name was exchanged often on social media. There is a compelling argument for changing the way the identity of complainants is handled in court. Why couldn't she have been known by a cipher during public hearings, since there was no obvious reason to keep identifying her?

There have been calls for sweeping changes to the way trials of this nature are conducted, including banning the public, with just the media there as witnesses to ensure that not only is justice done, but it is seen to be done.

That, in the belief of this newspaper, would be a step too far. The judicial process, where possible, should be conducted in an open and transparent manner. If a person's liberty can lie in the hands of a jury of their peers, then it surely follows that his or her peers in the public should be able to witness his or her trial.

Much of the clamour for change comes as a result of the reckless and irresponsible comments traded on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As we have often said, the internet is almost impossible to police effectively, and certainly the role of those who bring the legal process into disrepute through their actions on social media must be thoroughly investigated.

In contrast, it must be stressed at this stage that the mainstream media of radio, television and newspapers behaved responsibly during the trial, adhering to the strict rules of evidence by which they are bound in reporting cases. The mainstream media is strictly controlled and reports to a professional standard. There are a multiplicity of regulations governing the work of the media, and newspapers or broadcasters can be quickly brought to book if they transgress.

The huge public interest in this case has sent shockwaves through those who work daily in the courts at all levels and it is right that a debate has begun on how best to defend the rights of complainants and defendants in such trials.

Most of all - how does the legal process adapt to take account of new technologies and the problems they pose?

Belfast Telegraph

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