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Thirtyone:eight continues to join the call for the Northern Ireland Assembly to repeal Section 12, Justice (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, following the Judicial Review delivered by Justice Humphreys on 31st May.

Justice Humphreys declared that Sections 12-16 of the Act are incompatible with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) freedom of expression, including press freedom. Mr Justice Humphreys said these provisions fell outside of the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly and commented that the “chilling effect” on press freedom and reporting, including potential criminal sanction for naming an alleged suspect, would continue unabated.

While the judicial review focused primarily on public interest journalism, it was acknowledged that Sections 12-16 of the act have significant unintended consequences on survivors of abuse. As the only charity to speak up on this issue, Thirtyone:eight’s concerns relating to the suppression of survivor voice and the role media can play in enabling survivor voice were noted by the review.

Thirtyone:eight remains concerned that the legislation stops victims and survivors of sexual abuse from naming (or identifying characteristics of) their alleged abuser in the public domain. Survivors of Jimmy Saville have pointed out that without the freedom to speak through the press, many of his victims would have continued to believe they were the only ones harmed and the opportunity to be heard and seek justice would have been lost.

The decision from Justice Humphreys outlined two significant ways in which the pertinent sections failed to strike a balance between the rights of a suspect to anonymity and the freedom of the press to report on such matters, which may be considered a matter of public interest journalism:
1. The absence of a legislative valve within the legislation to allow journalists to challenge suspect anonymity pre-charge when in the public interest to report.
2. The Northern Ireland Assembly acted beyond its legislative competency in drafting and enacting these specific provisions.

Additionally, the judge considered that the legislative process did not pay enough attention to the potential consequences of the provisions on Article 10 ECHR rights.

Mr Justice Humphreys noted that the discussion by the Assembly centred primarily around victim/complainant anonymity and duration of such, however, this discussion migrated and was subsequently “transplanted” onto suspect anonymity rights and duration, without sufficient scrutiny of consequences of such.

The judicial decision also noted that the basis for the legislation, The Gillen Review, contained balance around the need to forego suspect anonymity pre-charge when there was a clear public interest in doing so. Sections 12 –16 failed to reflect this necessary balance.

Leigh McFarlane, Public Policy and Research Manager, Thirtyone:eight says,
“We call on the Department of Justice to urgently repeal this legislation's offending sections and initiate a new consultation on suspect anonymity provisions. This would ensure that a robust interrogation of such measures could occur, involving key stakeholders in the media and safeguarding arenas, permitting the drafting of suitable amendments which strike a fair and proportionate balance between Article 10 rights, public interest journalism, survivor voice and the right to anonymity for alleged suspects of sexual offences. We welcome any opportunity to work with the Department of Justice (NI) and other organisations to develop a safer Northern Ireland for all.”

If you have been impacted by this story and would like to speak to someone in confidence you can contact the Thirtyone:eight helpline on 0303 003 1111.

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