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Sunday 24 June 2018

Court to decide next week on lifting rugby rape trial restrictions

Rugby player Stuart Olding was cleared of all charges
Rugby player Stuart Olding was cleared of all charges

A lawyer for one of the rugby players acquitted in the Belfast rape trial has said he has concerns the lifting of reporting restrictions could "undermine the verdict of not guilty".

Frank O'Donoghue QC, who represented Stuart Olding (25) during the nine-week trial, said there was a "general concern" the not guilty verdicts could be undermined.

The lawyer said: "On occasion it (reporting) has been anything but respectful of the verdict."

An application by various media outlets to lift reporting restrictions imposed by Judge Patricia Smyth is expected to come before her next Monday.

The purpose of reporting restrictions is to prevent a jury being prejudiced by material heard in its absence. Such restrictions usually end after a jury has delivered its verdict and been discharged.

After the verdict, several media organisations objected to Judge Smyth continuing restrictions post-trial. Judge Smyth refused to hear the application and postponed the matter until April 25 for a full hearing.

Following this adjournment, the media made an application for an expedited hearing date and the matter came before the Lord Chief Justice, Declan Morgan, yesterday.

Chief Justice Morgan said Judge Smyth was aware of the application and was available next week to consider it.

The Chief Justice said he was aware of the argument that "news was perishable" and it was on that basis the application would be dealt with expeditiously.

Last Wednesday, Ireland and Ulster rugby stars Paddy Jackson (26) and Mr Olding (25) were acquitted by a jury of raping a then 19-year-old student during a party at Mr Jackson's home in June 2016.

Mr Jackson was also cleared of a charge of sexually assaulting the same woman. The men had always maintained that the sexual activity was consensual.

Blane McIlroy (26) was cleared of exposure and Rory Harrison (25) was found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information. They too had always denied the charges.

The jury returned the not guilty verdicts after deliberating for three hours and 45 minutes.

An application came before the High Court yesterday to lift reporting restrictions which were imposed during the trial.

Argued

Chief Justice Morgan said he was sitting in his capacity as a crown court judge. He said he was "not making any determination" on the application, and it should properly be argued before the original trial judge, Judge Smyth.

He said Judge Smyth was available to hear the application on Monday. Mr O'Donoghue said the application was originally to be heard at the end of April.

He said there were "real practical difficulties" with the application proceeding on Monday, as a number of the lawyers were out of the country.

He said he "did want to object" to the application by the media, but he needed time to prepare.

He also said there was a need for "absolute clarity" on the effects of any orders.

Outlining the objections to lifting reporting restrictions, Mr O'Donoghue said two men in the case were facing disciplinary proceedings and two men had taken civil proceedings.

Mr O'Donoghue also said there was a general concern that further publication of "prejudicial material" could undermine the not guilty verdicts delivered by the jury.

Gerry Simpson QC, for the press, said he was conscious the application had come at an unusual time.

"It's now a week since the trial ended. It will be another week before this application is heard. I'm keen to keep pressing on with it," he said.

The Chief Justice said he believed "skeleton arguments" should be ready by the end of the week and adjourned the application to Monday.

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