New laws to safeguard the privacy and anonymity of victims of sexual offences and suspects in sexual offence cases come into effect today.
The Department of Justice has announced the new laws, which implement recommendations made by Sir John Gillen in his Review into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences. The laws provide for:
- The exclusion of the public from court in serious sexual offence cases, where only those necessary to the effective functioning of the proceedings, and bona fide representatives of the press, will be allowed in the court during Crown Court trials and appeals hearings in the Court of Appeal;
- The extension of existing lifelong anonymity for victims of sexual offending for a period of 25 years after the victim has died;
- Anonymity for suspects in sexual offence cases up to the point of charge. Those not subsequently charged will have anonymity for their lifetime and for 25 years after their death;
- Nothing can be published which leads to the identification of a victim of a sexual offence, or a suspect in a sexual offence case. Those who breach the anonymity provisions face up to six months’ imprisonment.
Welcoming the strengthening of the legislation, Richard Pengelly CB, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Justice, said: “Sir John’s Review concluded that the unrestricted access of the public to trials of serious sexual offences 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.
“I hope that all these measures will enable victims to have greater confidence in the criminal justice system and that, rather than suffer in silence, they will feel able to report when they have been the victim of a sexual offence, knowing that these further protections are in place.”
Sir John Gillen commented that the legislation builds on progressive changes already implemented by the Department including the provision of independent sexual offences legal advisers for all complainants, remote evidence centres and fast tracking for cases involving children.
He continued: “One of the most unforgiving consequences of a complainant coming forward in a serious sexual offence has been the utter humiliation of being obliged to recite the most intimate and distressing details of their experiences before, potentially, a packed courtroom. It was one of a number of factors deterring victims from engaging in the criminal justice process in the context of sexual attacks. That particular fear has now been removed.”
Notes to editors:
1. Media guidance for editors relating to the legislative changes is available at the end of Notes to editors.
2. Extended Anonymity of Victim and Complainants (Sections 8 to 11 of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022)
4. Serious Sexual Offences: Exclusion of the public from court (Section 19 Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022)
6. The Gillen Review can be accessed at the publication section of this website.
7. More information for victims of sexual offences is available on NI Direct website.
8. Media enquiries should be directed to the Department of Justice Press Office via email.
9. The Executive Information Service operates an out of hours’ service for media enquiries only between 1800hrs and 0800hrs Monday to Friday and at weekends and public holidays. The duty press officer can be contacted out of hours on 028 9037 8110.
10. Follow us on Twitter
11. Media guidance for editors: Legislative changes for information
(i) Extended Anonymity of Victim and Complainants - Sections 8 to 11 of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 (‘the SOTV Act’). Currently, under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 publication of anything that would help identify the victim or complainant of a sexual offence is prohibited during their lifetime. The SOTV Act amends the 1992 Act to extend these reporting restrictions for 25 years after their death. From commencement on 28 September 2023, anonymity for 25 years after their death will apply to all living victims or complainants of sexual offences regardless of when the sexual offence took place. Where a victim or complainant has died 25 years or less before the commencement date, the extended anonymity will apply. The penalty for breach of anonymity has been increased to up to 6 months’ imprisonment and applies to both lifelong and extended anonymity after the death of the victim. Applications can be made to the magistrates’ court to dis-apply or modify the reporting restrictions after death.
(ii) Anonymity of the Suspect Sections 12 to 18 of, and Schedule 3. These provisions allow for the anonymity of the suspect in a sexual offence case up to the point of their 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. Once a suspect has been charged with a sexual offence the protection of anonymity ends. On commencement on 28 September 2023, the anonymity provisions will apply retrospectively. Applications to dis-apply or modify the reporting restrictions can be made to the magistrates’ court.
(iii) Exclusion of the public from Crown Court - Section 19 Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 Where a sexual offence case is tried on indictment in the Crown Court, only certain persons are allowed to remain in the court. Before the trial, the court must make an exclusion direction which will specify those who are allowed to remain in the court. Under an exclusion direction, all persons are excluded from the court with the exception of those as prescribed in the SOTV Act:
- Members and officers of the court;
- Persons directly involved in the proceedings. This includes: the complainant, the accused, legal representatives acting in the proceedings, any witness while giving evidence in the proceedings, any person acting in the capacity of an interpreter or other person appointed to assist a witness or an accused and members of the jury;
- A relative or friend of the complainant nominated by the complainant and specified in the direction. Only one person may be nominated. A relative or friend of the accused nominated by the accused and specified in the direction. Only one person may be nominated;
- Bona fide representatives of news gathering or reporting organisations;
- Any other person specified in the direction as a person excepted from the exclusion.
Where the complainant in the sexual offence case has died before the start of the trial an exclusion direction does not apply. An exclusion direction has effect from the beginning of the trial until the proceedings, in respect of each serious sexual offence to which the trial relates, have been determined (by acquittal, conviction or otherwise) or abandoned. If the trial continues in respect of other non-sexual offences, the exclusion direction no longer applies. The exclusion direction does not apply during any time when a verdict is being delivered in relation to the accused. The public are allowed to be in the court when a verdict is being delivered.
(iv) Exclusion of the public from appeal hearings – Section 19 Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. The provisions also place a duty on the Court of Appeal to make an exclusion direction before the start of an appeal hearing or a hearing on an application for leave to appeal against a conviction or sentence (or both) for a serious sexual offence. The exclusion provisions do not apply to proceedings on applications for leave to appeal which are considered by a single judge mechanism on papers submitted. With the exception of the following, the guidance above on exclusion of the public from the Crown Court also applies to the exclusion of the public from appeal hearings:
- Where the complainant has died before the start of the hearing, an exclusion direction does not apply. Where the complainant has died after the hearing has commenced, the exclusion direction continues to apply;
- The exclusion direction does not apply when the following decisions of the court are being pronounced: A decision to grant or refuse leave to appeal; a decision on an appeal; a decision to grant or refuse leave for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to make a reference on the grounds of undue leniency; a decision on a reference on the grounds of undue leniency by the DPP.
- Departments of Justice and Communities launch anti-social behaviour consultation 28 November 2023
- Major milestone for sexual offences legislation 27 November 2023
- Cyber Crime, Modern Slavery and Sentencing: Findings from the 2021/22 NI Safe Community Telephone Survey published today 24 November 2023
- Permanent Secretary visits Lough Neagh Rescue 24 November 2023