TUV leader Jim Allister was responding to a recommendation made by retired senior judge Sir John Gillen, who is leading an independent review into how the Northern Ireland justice system deals with serious sexual offences.
The review was prompted following the much-publicised trial and acquittal of Irish rugby internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding of rape charges in Belfast earlier this year.
There are more than 200 recommendations in Sir John Gillen’s preliminary report, including restricting public access to such trials and introducing new legislation to manage dangers created by social media.
While yet to study the recommendations in detail, Mr Allister agreed that “new laws and efforts are needed to tackle the abuse of social media” during trials, but stressed that he wouldn’t support banning members of the public from attending trials.
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“It seems to me he is going down this line because of the abuse of social media, so as a reaction to that he is suggesting there be diminished public justice, whereas I would have thought the proper reaction to that is to crack down hard on the abuse of social media,” he said.
Mr Allister said “the default position” should be that trials are open to the public, but acknowledged that some could be “in camera” under certain circumstances.
Retired barrister and former SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said the suggestion of closing courts to members of the public in serious sexual assault cases was “not a bad idea”, but added that restricting public access wouldn’t be appropriate in all cases.
“In some of these trials the court has become a bit of a spectator sport, and I think that is horribly wrong,” he said.
Welcoming the suggestion of tougher legislation to combat the misuse of social media during trials, Mr Maginness said such a move is “absolutely necessary”.
Sir John Gillen’s preliminary recommendations have been welcomed by the UUP’s justice spokesperson Doug Beattie MC MLA, who said he believes “there will be widespread support for ensuring the victim has anonymity for life and that in order to ensure this, that rape trials should not be open to the public”.
Also welcoming the “comprehensive review”, Green Party MLA Clare Bailey, co-chair of the Assembly All Party Group on Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the report “must be a starting point for a systemic review of how we approach sexual violence within the judicial system”.
The Gillen Report is being put out to public consultation, with submissions being invited until January 15.
It’s understood he hopes to publish his final report before the end of 2019.