It is logical to have rape trial review but easy reform is unlikely

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There has been so much controversy over the rugby rape trial that it was inevitable it would lead to some scrutiny of the criminal justice system.

Fallout from the case has been immense: four young men were unanimously acquitted by a jury shortly after it went out to consider a trial that lasted weeks.

Yet there was such an outcry against the outcome that protests were held in which some people used the slogan ‘I believe her,’ making clear that they did not accept the verdict.

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The two Ulster rugby players in the case, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, have been sacked, amid controversy over lewd texts they admitted they had sent. Some critics of the men had paid for advertisements demanding their dismissal.

The almost unique circumstances of the case, involving celebrity, sex and a tsunami of social media, mean it is appropriate to ensure that trial processes are up to date. But it would be wrong to change things due to public pressure. Long established principles, such as open justice, must not be altered without hard examination of the consequences. Balancing the need to minimise the stress for complainants giving testimony with the essential rights of defendants to a fair trial, in which that testimony is probed, is a painstaking process.

As part of this balance, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, recently said that complainants will not automatically believed. They will be likely to be believed and treated with sensitivity, but London police will be investigators with an open mind. When this newspaper asked the PSNI whether it takes the same approach as the Met, it did not confirm any such change of emphasis.

One of the UK’s most distinguished legal commentators Joshua Rozenberg said on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday that he had concerns about defendant anonymity or clearing the public gallery. His reservations show that there are no easy reforms.

We do need a review that is thorough but not one that is unwieldy and overly costly. It was reassuring that Sir John Gillen gave a clear idea of when he would report: early 2019.

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