Anonymity for sexual offence suspects in Northern Ireland - and the 'law' of Unintended Consequences


This column is taking a trip across the Irish Sea to examine how our friends in Northern Ireland are having to deal with a (relatively) recent piece of legislation that came into force in that part of the UK in September 2023.  It’s a good example of the law of unintended consequences.

Section 12(2) of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 prohibits publication of any information which is likely to lead members of the public to identify a person as being the subject of an allegation that he committed a sexual offence or was the subject of a police investigation. 

This obligation not to ID a suspected offender ceases if the suspect is charged with a criminal offence; and if no charges are ever brought, then the prohibition on identification of the individual remains in force until 25 years after the date of the suspect’s death.

A breach of this prohibition can land editors, publishers, and proprietors in hot water, with a possible custodial sentence of up to six months and a fine not exceeding £5,000.

Applications can be made to the Magistrates’ Court to disapply the provision, though if the suspect is still alive, and this is the interesting point, such an application can only be made by the suspect or the Chief Constable. If, however, the suspect is deceased, applications can be made by family members of the suspect, their executors, or “a person interested in publishing matters relating to the suspect”.

You can see the policy thinking behind this new provision.  The stigma that accompanies a sex offence allegation or investigation is such that the innocent should not be tarred with it.

When my colleague wrote about this legislation when it came into force in October last year, here, she noted that whilst the intention was clearly laudable, the question “what price open justice?” had to be asked - and answered.

Which brings us to the unintended consequence.

Northern Ireland has seen quite a few historic child abuse cases, often perpetrated by former clergymen.  In at least one instance, the perpetrator died decades ago; his victims have formed a support group which remains active to this day; the Church has acknowledged the man’s offending, for which it has apologised; and compensation has been paid to the victims.

And yet…. because the man died prematurely and so could not be prosecuted, he cannot now be identified, even though the victim’s support group and the Church held a public service of reconciliation, and it is obviously in the public interest to identify him .

And to make matters worse, the man in question has been widely identified over the last two decades (before the 2022 Act came into force) because he was such a notorious and prolific offender. 

And yes, I haven’t forgotten that the Act provides that a publisher may apply to the Magistrates Court for the prohibition to be lifted.  But in reality, in these difficult times, it’s unlikely that there will be many publishers who are able to spend the time and the money in making this kind of application.

So, what happened on this occasion?  The local paper was obliged to remain silent and not mention an important local event (a church service for the victims), because to do so would inevitably have resulted in identification of the dead man. 

Is it any consolation to know that the 25 year anonymity period expires in three years’ time, after which the man can be identified in the usual way?  Thought not…….

Unintended though this outcome no doubt was, one well known saying immediately springs to mind: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions…

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