Trial review deserves rigorous political and media scrutiny

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
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The News Letter today publishes some of the serious misgivings that the legal profession has over plans to overhaul the handling of sex cases.

The review, carried out by a judge, Sir John Gillen, got a near unanimous political welcome.

His recommendations include excluding the public from such trials, appointing a publicly funded lawyer for the complainant, pre recorded cross-examination of alleged victims and for judges to give directions to jurors about beliefs, that we are told are myths, such as that false sex claims are rife.

This latter proposal is, as the Bar of NI seems to think (judging from its submission to the review process), troubling. False allegations may not be rife, but they are a shocking reality. There have been cases in England, amid a push for prosecutions, in which evidence was almost not disclosed that made allegations suddenly look wholly unconvincing.

If jurors are to be told that it is a myth that such allegations are rife, will they misinterpret that instruction, hitherto unusual in a court, to think that they do not happen?

Sir John recognises that some people will think his recommendations go “much too far” but says “the overwhelming majority of respondents” support the thrust of the proposals. Some of his ideas would match practises that have been tested in England, or are existing procedure in Ireland.

The lord chief justice told this newspaper that nothing should be done to imperil the right to a fair trial. That is reassuring, but even so political reaction to the issue, and some media coverage of it, has seemed simplistic and one sided. A BBC bulletin after the review interviewed two people, one of whom thought the report should be implemented immediately, and another who thought it did not go far enough.

Joshua Rozenberg said banning the public from trials should be almost a last resort, yet this seems set to go through without criticism. The Gillen review covers matters of grave importance that deserve more rigorous media and political scrutiny than they have had.