In the latest in a continuing trend in divergence in Northern Ireland media law, new statutory anonymity protection has come into force for suspects in sexual assault cases. Anonymity will generally apply up to the point they are formally charged, which is stark contrast to other jurisdictions within the UK.
Back in 2018, the trial of two high profile rugby players caused a media storm in Northern Ireland. The public attention given to that case, as well as some other high-profile cases at that time, led many to call for an investigation into of the handling of cases involving allegations of rape and sexual assault.
The commissioned review, led by Sir John Gillen, a former Judge of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, the ‘Gillen Review Report into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in NI’ reported back in 2019. That report included a large number of proposals to change the way cases are handled in Northern Ireland. The recommendations fed into the Assembly’s consideration of a new justice bill and ultimately some of its suggestions were adopted into the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022.
Section 12 of that Act, passed before the last Assembly election has now entered into force.
The main provisions of section 12 operate whenever:
- an allegation that a particular person has committed a sexual offence has been made to the police, or
- the police have taken any step to investigate whether a particular person has committed a sexual offence.
When such an investigation is live, it is unlawful to include any information in any publication which identifies or is likely to lead to the identification of the suspect. This includes a prohibition on the publication of:
- the suspect’s name or address;
- the identity of any school or other educational establishment attended by the suspect;
- the identity of any place of work;
- any still or moving picture of the suspect.
The restrictions remain in place for 25 years following the death of the suspect unless:
- a summons or warrant is issued by the Magistrates’ Courts against the suspect in respect of the offence;
- the suspect is charged with the offence after being taken into custody without a warrant;
- an indictment charging the suspect with the offence is presented under: or
- the magistrates’ court commits the suspect to the Crown Court for trial on a new charge alleging the offence.
Subject to the various potential defences set out in the act, publication of any of this information is now a criminal offence.
Recent case law in the rest of the UK has emphasised the importance of considering privacy rights of suspects as well as victims in cases involving allegations of sexual assault. This has led generally to a greater reluctance to name suspects in reports prior to charge for fear of a potential civil action. In the rest of the UK however this has largely remained a matter of editorial discretion and a balancing of the various rights and obligations. All media organisations now need to be acutely aware, that in Northern Ireland at least, naming suspects could now lead to a criminal penalty as well as a civil case. It will be interesting to see how this reform works in practice and if it leads to greater calls for further anonymity, up to trial or otherwise, in cases involving allegations of this kind.
Editorial prepared by Mark Thompson, Senior Associate, Litigation @ Mills Selig
For nearly three decades Mills Selig has been recognised as a leading Media Law Firm in Northern Ireland – representing many national newspapers, broadcast organisations, book and magazine publishers and high-profile individuals. The firm is ranked ‘Tier 1’ by Media Law International – Click to learn more – Media & Defamation @ Mills Selig
Mark Thompson, Senior Associate, Litigation
Mark Thompson is a Senior Associate at Mills Selig and works within the Litigation team.
Mark specialises in media, defamation, privacy and intellectual property in addition to his commercial litigation work.
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