Monday 21 January 2019

Inside the courtroom where two Irish Rugby players stand trial for alleged rape

Belfast Crown Court. Photo: PA
Belfast Crown Court. Photo: PA
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

In courtroom number 12 in Belfast's Crown Court, observers walk through the double panel wooden doors and immediately come face-to-face with family and friends of both sides packed into the room as they wait for the day's proceedings to start.

Unlike Dublin's Four Courts, with its ancient mahogany benches, old stone floors and mosaic tiles, the building on Belfast's Chichester Street has a starkly modern aesthetic - the result of relatively recent restorations.

It is also markedly different from the spacious Dublin Courts of Justice in Parkgate Street where serious criminal cases are heard in the south.

In the north, Court 12 is the largest single courtroom in the Laganside court complex, which also houses Magistrates' Courts dealing with less serious cases and other specialist courts, which are there to rule on issues like family law.

Witnesses and families sit alongside media in a sectioned-off room, separated from the main courtroom by thick glass.

To the left is a small door through which Irish rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, along with co-defendants Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, walk each day to take their seats in the dock.

They are met by a court security guard, who quickly pats them down as a routine security measure. They are then seated, four in a row, with their backs to the media, family and friends and other attendees, perhaps 30-40 individuals packed into a relatively small space.

The defendants sit in the middle of the court in a glass enclosure, separated from the front of the court.

There is a call for silence and the court is brought to order before Judge Patricia Smyth, in robes of red and purple, takes her seat on the bench at the top of the courtroom.

In front of the dock where the defendants are seated, lawyers for the prosecution and the defence sit, their papers and notes spread before them.

To their immediate left, 12 individuals - nine men and three women - take their position in the jury box.

And to the right of the dock and counsel benches, a royal blue curtain is drawn tight, obscuring the witness box, where the alleged victim sits out of direct view from all except for the lawyers, the judge and the jury.

She appears on a large TV screen which stands in front of the curtain. It is tilted so that it is pointed generally towards the defendants in the dock, but it can also be viewed by the media, family and friends at the back of the court.

As the defendants' legal team continue the cross- examination of the alleged victim, they ask their questions face-to-face.

The trial is expected to last for five weeks.

Sunday Independent

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