New laws to further safeguard the privacy and anonymity of victims of sexual offences and suspects in sexual offence cases will come into force on 28 September 2023.
The new laws, contained in Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, (the 2022 Act) implement recommendations made by Sir John Gillen in his Review into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland.
Exclusion of the public from court in serious sexual offence cases
Under section 19 of the 2022 Act, the public will be excluded from Crown Court trials and hearings in the Court of Appeal for serious sexual offences. Before the start of a trial or a hearing relating to an appeal, the court must make an exclusion direction. Under the direction, everyone is excluded from the court with the exception of:
- members and officers of the court;
- persons directly involved in the proceedings;
- a relative or friend of the complainant nominated by the complainant and specified in the exclusion direction;
- a relative or friend of the accused nominated by the accused and specified in the exclusion direction;
- bona fide representatives of news gathering or reporting organisations;
- any other person specified in the direction as a person excepted from the exclusion.
In his review, Sir John concluded that the unrestricted access of the public to the court in serious sexual offence cases humiliated and intimidated complainants, and deterred victims of sexual crimes from reporting them to the police. The exclusion of the public from court in these cases is an important step in giving greater protection and support to victims. It provides certainty and reassurance to victims that, when their case comes to court, the criminal justice system will further protect their anonymity and privacy and shield them from the pain and distress of recounting intimate and harrowing details in front of the general public.
Extended anonymity for victims of sexual offences
The alleged victim of a sexual offence, or the complainant in a sexual offence case, already has lifelong anonymity under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992. This means that nothing can be published, during their lifetime, which would lead to their identification. The new provisions, in sections 8 to 11 of the 2022 Act, further protect this anonymity by extending it for 25 years after their death, with the ability to apply to the court for the reporting restrictions to be varied or modified or for the period of 25 years to be increased or decreased. From 28 September 2023, anonymity for 25 years after death will apply to all living victims and complainants regardless of when the sexual offence took place. Where a victim or complainant has died before this date, the extended anonymity will apply in those cases where the person has died 25 years or less ago. Breach of the anonymity of a victim or complainant, either during their lifetime or after death, is punishable with up to six months’ imprisonment.
Anonymity for suspects in sexual offence cases up to the point of charge
The new provisions, in sections 12 to 18 of the 2022 Act, allow for the anonymity of the suspect in a sexual offence case up to the point of charge. Where a suspect is not subsequently charged, his or her anonymity will be protected during their lifetime and for 25 years after their death.
Under the new law, it will be an offence to publish anything that would lead to the identification of the suspect, punishable with up to six months’ imprisonment. A suspect is defined as a person against whom an allegation of having committed a sexual offence has been made to the police or whom the police are investigating in connection with a sexual offence but where no allegation has been made.
Applications to dis-apply or modify the reporting restrictions, or to reduce or increase the 25 year period, can be made to court. During the person’s lifetime these can be made by the suspect or the Chief Constable only. After the suspect’s death, applications can be made by a relative or personal representative of the suspect, or a person interested in publishing matters relating to the deceased suspect. Once a suspect has been charged with a sexual offence, he or she becomes the accused, and the protection of anonymity ends.
From 28 September 2023, the anonymity provisions will be applied retrospectively. This means that anonymity of the suspect applies both to those who were suspects before commencement of the provisions, (whether or not their identity, or any information which could have helped identify them, was previously published) and to those who are suspects on or after commencement. It will also apply to suspects who have died 25 years or less from the date of commencement.