People accused of sexual assault will be granted anonymity in all cases under a new law which will be brought forward next year.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee said the Government will also consider using the same legislation to crack down on those who reveal the identity of rape victims on social media.
The new law is among measures being brought forward under sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system and how it deals with rape victims.
The Government published its plan to reform rape trials amid widespread concerns from survivors and campaigners that the legal process may put victims off coming forward.
It follows a major report, led by senior law lecturer Tom O’Malley, which proposed granting anonymity to those accused of sexual violence in all cases. At the moment, people accused of rape are currently given anonymity during a trial until they are convicted.
Ms McEntee confirmed that she had accepted a call to extend the right to anonymity to all those accused of sexual assault, and would start working on a law to do so in January 2021.
“We would have legislation presented to Government before the end of next year, we are absolutely committed to that,” Ms McEntee said.
She said that issues around social media would be “grouped together” under the same law. The O’Malley report said that laws which prosecute people for revealing a victim's identity in the media should be updated to include social media. The Government has also accepted this recommendation.
Ms McEntee said the Government wanted to bring in a number of new measures to assure rape victims they would be supported throughout the legal process.
“People are not coming forward because they don't necessarily think that there will be justice at the end of this – and sometimes people start the process, feel it's too difficult, and don't carry through to the very end,” she said.
From next year, judges and barristers would get training on how to deal with sensitive witnesses, including rape victims. Victims of sexual violence will still not be entitled to have their own legal representation throughout a trial. At the moment, victims are allowed their own legal representation only when the defence in a rape trial applies to ask them about their sexual history. There are plans to extend this to sexual assault victims.
The Legal Aid board would ensure the victim’s representative is as senior as the person representing the prosecution and the defence.