Lessons of the Belfast rape trial
The Belfast rape trial has raised the most serious questions in relation to the sexual interactions between men and women, primary among which is the meaning of rape, which is sex without consent, and as a consequence of that, the meaning of consent. In recent times there has been a wider discussion around the meaning of "consent", specifically when it is offered and withdrawn. This is an overdue discussion, still evolving. However, despite its importance to the nature of sexual violence, consent remains misunderstood.
In the aftermath of the Belfast trial, Noeline Blackwell, of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, was correct to highlight the need for all those engaged in sexual activity to ensure that their partner was consenting. She was also convincing when she stated - as was also stated at the trial - that submission is not consent: "A person does not have to yell or call out for help. A person may be frozen. All of these are normal and real responses. They are not consent. Consent involves active agreement. Anything less is unacceptable."
The jury trial concluded with the acquittal of four men, two of them Ireland rugby internationals, for rape and other sexual offences and for withholding information. That verdict must be and is respected. However, the trial has raised a number of issues, consent being but one: another is the way in which claimants and accused are treated in such trials. In this case, the young woman spent eight days under cross-examination by four legal teams. She herself was unrepresented, other than by prosecution counsel. This is an area which is, admittedly, difficult to reconcile. However, all effort must be made to protect complainants in rape cases against unfair or irrelevant cross-examination. Where rape is alleged, the trial procedure is of its nature potentially distressing, humiliating or embarrassing for the complainant in a way which other trial procedures are not. These are problems which any humane system of criminal justice must seek to address, but without unfairly limiting the rights of the accused.