A world-renowned writer has cautioned against creating a justice system which “overcompensates” for the existence of sex crimes by making it harder for the accused to defend themselves.
Lionel Shriver, an award-winning novelist, was offering her impression of the Gillen review into the handling of sex offence cases in Northern Ireland, and spoke against moves which might end up “steering the jury towards conviction”.
An American by birth who lived in Northern Ireland for around a dozen years during the Troubles, Ms Shriver has in recent times has been critical of the idea of automatically believing complainants.
A review into how Northern Irish courts deal with such allegations began after the acquittal of all defendants in the Paddy Jackson/Stuart Olding rape trial.
Led by retired judge Sir John Gillen (aided by an advisory panel which included figures from anti-sex abuse advocacy groups), its final recommendations were published on May 9, and among them is a call to quash what he describes as “rape mythology”.
This should be done said Sir John by screening jurors for the presence of “rape myths” before they can be appointed, by written directions from a judge to jurors at the start of trials, and by a general programme to educate the public.
His report says “rape myths” include the idea false complaints are common. He also cites the idea of allegations being levelled out of revenge or because complainants regret having sex as potentially being a myth as well.
Last week, leading British QC Chris Daw told the News Letter judicial directions on “rape myths” already happen in England and Wales, but that he opposes them in principle as “systematically looking to tilt the scales of justice in favour of a conviction, rather than leaving the jury to do its job”.
A top legal source told the News Letter similar advice is given in Northern Irish trials now too, but tends to be near the end and verbal in nature – and that what Sir John’s recommendations seem to entail is shifting the focus to the very start of proceedings and sharpening up the directions that are given.
Offering her own impression of the Gillen review, Ms Shriver said: “The one thing that struck me as a red flag is this reference to ‘rape myths’, which is language clearly lifted from advocacy jargon.
“Judges don’t lecture juries about ‘murder myths’ or ‘burglary myths’.
“And I share Chris Daw’s concern that such a lecture is clearly steering the jury towards conviction, and is therefore attempting to put a thumb on the scale.
“I support measures that make it less painful for women who’ve been sexually assaulted to come forward.
“But the justice system shouldn’t get so caught up in the politics of the day that it overcompensates.”
She went on to add that “recent cases in the UK have demonstrated that defendants in rape cases can be victims too”.
This was a reference to Liam Allan, a 22-year-old student who was acquitted of multiple counts of rape after a two year investigation, when text messages from the complainant were disclosed which fatally undermined the claims against him (Ms Shriver added there have been “more than one” such case like this).
Ms Shriver first came to prominence with her 2003 book ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, which later became a Hollywood film.
She is a regular writer The Spectator magazine, where her recent columns have condemned what she dubs a “resurgent Puritanism” around sexual behaviour, and a tendency to believe an allegation “either didn’t happen at all, or it was the most horrifying defilement in the history of the universe”.
She has also alluded to having her own experience of sexual abuse, but said this is “my business”.