Belfast Telegraph

It takes a special kind of courage to see a case like this through to the end

By Mairia Cahill

The complainant in the recent rugby rape accused trial is a stronger woman than I am. While it's important, mostly for legal reasons, to say that I respect entirely the jury's not guilty verdicts in the trial - it's human nature to feel an affinity with the complainant in this case. I do.

To have not guilty verdicts returned does not mean, as some armchair lawyers have pointed out on social media, that she is a liar, but rather that the jury, having heard all of the evidence in this case, decided unanimously that there was not enough evidence to convict on any charge levelled at the defendants beyond reasonable doubt.

The defendants have been found not guilty after the evidence has been tested.

They have been put through cross examination and cleared but have suffered the embarrassment of having been charged in the first place. They are entitled to feel aggrieved.

The complainant, no doubt, has suffered also. It isn't easy to see a court case through from start to finish. Less so, when you are upset by the verdict.

In 2014, all three of my own court cases collapsed when I withdrew support for the prosecution of my case. I never withdrew my allegations, but I did refuse to go into a courtroom.

I was weary after four years in a highly stressful court process, fraught with delays and other matters and one which caused me to be hospitalised due to a suspected stroke halfway through, and other legal developments such as trials being scheduled and then put back which caused myself and my family upheaval and unprecedented worry.

Had I gone into court, I would have been faced with five sets of legal teams, split across three trials. On the morning of the first trial, I had had enough.

I refused to go in, then agreed after persuasion to do so, and was sitting in the witness room going over my statement waiting to be called to the stand, when a barrister came to confirm a defence witness had emerged.

The burden of proof - two people's word against mine, seemed insurmountable.

I sent a very strong statement to the judge about my perceived treatment, and walked out of the courtroom - something which those opposed to me have cast in my face on an almost weekly basis since 2014.

I was physically sick the rest of the day after walking from my cases. I still feel sick sometimes.

That feeling returned with this trial.

Human nature put my feeling with the complainant and transported me into her case as if it was mine.

That isn't unusual, cases such as this trigger people.

But, as time went on, and I tried to escape details of the trial to mind myself, it became impossible to do so.

It was on the radio and TV at every turn.

Some journalists were live tweeting the case from the courtroom. It was compelling and sickening in equal measure.

As rape trials go, this was horrendous.

Horrendous for the complainant. Horrendous for the accused. Horrendous.

The line of questioning for the complainant or the defendants wasn't out of the ordinary.

Questions we hear regularly such as "what was she wearing?", "How much did the complainant and the defendants have to drink?" were fashioned in some shape or form and put to those in the dock.

And yet, there was something markedly different in this trial as it unfolded.

People lived it, voyeuristically devouring every detail.

It was the subject of conversations in coffee shops, in workplaces and in sports changing rooms. Everyone had an opinion.

Some I was surprised at, some disturbed by.

All were experts. None I heard directly had been in the courtroom ever as a rape complainant.

There is a case to be made for anonymity, and having heard the arguments for and against, and having gone through a trial, I am against it.

I fought to get a reporting restriction lifted in my trial, and had it remained in place, I wouldn't have been able to talk about the wider issue of IRA sexual abuse and the republican movement's treatment of victims, or refer to my court proceedings.

There is also a case to be made to exclude the public from the court gallery, and it is one which I fully agree with.

It's hard enough to give evidence on the stand. I've done so on a number of occasions as a PPS witness in other matters.

It's draining and made worse by people gawping at you like Blanche in Coronation Street.

In a rape case such as this where intimate details such as vaginal tears, and underwear stains, and who put whose fingers where is discussed in minute detail, it's hard to argue that the open justice principle is served best by letting people sit in the gallery listening to every word.

Harder still to learn that a complainant's lifetime right to anonymity means little when the public can listen to their name said throughout the course of proceedings.

Much has been made, dangerously in my opinion, of the fear that people will, as a result of this trial, be reluctant to come forward.

The facts tell us a different story, and the PSNI have confirmed that complaints during the trial are up from this time last year.

History shows us that when cases like this are in the public domain that people do feel compelled to disclose.

When they do, there are more measures in place to help witnesses.

Sir Keir Starmer made a number of recommendations for the public prosecution service in 2015 in response to reviewing my own case's failings.

Changes such as training for prosecutors handling rape cases have made substantial progress, according to a criminal justice inspectorate report released last year.

A new unit has been set up specifically for cases like this.

That's why it's so important that organisations who work with women heed these changes and continue to support those who wish to make a criminal complaint.

Even with these changes, convictions in rape trials are extremely hard to obtain, but it's the only system we have.

Everything that the criminal justice system can do to make it easier for all concerned should be done.

Still, this trial was toxic from the initial stages and has undoubtedly done damage to public confidence.

The appalling WhatsApp messages in all their offensive detail.

The inconsistencies in accounts - and not just that of the complainant. The social media commentary that dangerously skimmed the line of contempt.

The public anger during cross-examination - at lawyers who are just doing the job they are tasked with.

The haunted look of the defendants as they made their way in an out of the courtroom each day.

And at the heart of this circus, a 19-year-old woman who chose to see her complaint through to the end.

The prosecution service didn't get the result they had hoped for. The defence teams did.

All four men are not guilty and are free to go. It will take a long time before the memory of this trial and its damaging effect lessens for all of those involved.

Belfast Telegraph

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