Ben Lowry: It is a ‘rape myth’ to say that the rugby trial was a public circus at the court itself

There was a huge media interest in the rugby rape trial last year, such as after the players were acquitted, above, but in fact the number of members of the public who attended court was tiny, compared to the overall population and the level of general interest. Yet a ban on public attending such trials is about to be waved through. Picture Pacemaker March 28 2018
There was a huge media interest in the rugby rape trial last year, such as after the players were acquitted, above, but in fact the number of members of the public who attended court was tiny, compared to the overall population and the level of general interest. Yet a ban on public attending such trials is about to be waved through. Picture Pacemaker March 28 2018
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Sir John Gillen’s report into how to deal with sex cases in Northern Ireland got an largely uncritical press.

Once again the News Letter is trying to bring balance to a topic on which there seems to be a fashionable consensus.

Yesterday Adam Kula reported Chris Daw QC’s concern about the proposal that jurors be directed to ignore what the report describes as “rape myths”. There would be “jury educational material, a short video and written judicial directions”.

Mr Daw said it was “completely wrong” because, “unlike any other category of case, you don’t have judges telling juries how people do or don’t behave when it comes to making allegations of non-sexual assault or fraud or any other thing”.

Such an approach was “systematically looking to tilt the scales of justice in favour of a conviction, rather than leaving the jury to do its job, which is to assess the evidence on both sides without being influenced by the judge giving them a steer [as to which direction to go]”.

The report suggests the public be banned from sex trials, an idea which gained traction after the rugby rape trial. Politicians and commentators said there had been public “voyeurism” and a “circus”.

But this is nonsense. The trial was held in Laganside’s biggest court that has around 100 seats in the public gallery. Some days it was full but most days there were spaces. But a third of the gallery was cordoned off for press, in addition to 10 existing press seats.

Many of the people in the remaining 65 or so public seats were connected with people in the case. Some of them were passing lawyers or law students.

The case had massive publicity, yet at most two dozen people a day walked off the street to watch it — a tiny fraction of Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million population.

In a talk in Belfast last year, attended by Sir John, the legal expert Joshua Rozenberg described banning the public as “almost the last resort” (see link below). Yet it seems this huge reform will be waved through in NI.

The ban would not have reduced massive media coverage of the rugby case but it would suddenly end the ancient right to observe a trial.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

• Ben Lowry: The double jobbing ban hasn’t helped Northern Ireland politics, if anything it has made it worse

Joshua Rozenberg says banning public and press from sex trials should only be a last resort