A Northern Ireland law granting anonymity to people suspected of sexual offences until they are charged is not compatible with human rights or press freedom, a judge has said.

The law, which came into effect in Northern Ireland in 2023, granted anonymity for life – and for 25 years after death – to suspects who hadn’t been charged.

Media organisations joined forces in an attempt to have sections of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 declared legally invalid.

Mr Justice Humphreys told Belfast High Court that the relevant sections were “not law” and failed to strike a fair balance between suspects rights to privacy and press freedom.

It had been argued during the judicial review that victims of sexual assault could be jailed if they publicly named their suspected abusers.

The court had also heard that the law meant not only that victims could be criminalised but that suspects could not publicly deny allegations.

The judge told the court: “The legislation is not in accordance with law and the Northern Ireland Assembly acted outwith the margin of appreciation afforded to it in this field”.

Passed by MLAs following a review carried out by retired judge Sir John Gillen, the Act sets Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Although Sir John recommended a prohibition on identifying those under investigation for sexual crimes prior to being charged, his report did not suggest extending anonymity beyond their deaths.

Media organisations involved in the bid to have sections of the Act declared legally invalid included BBC, The Irish News, Mediahuis – which publishes the Belfast Telegraph – and The Times’ publisher News Group Newspapers.

Ruling on the challenge, Mr Justice Humphreys stressed: “The imposition of a criminal sanction on public interest journalism, and the chilling effect occasioned thereby, represents an interference with an Article 10 right which requires the most anxious scrutiny.”

Declaring that the relevant sections of the Act are unlawful, he added: “They are outside the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly as they are incompatible with the Article 10 ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) rights of the applicants.”

In concluding comments, Mr Justice Humphreys stated: “Public interest journalism serves a vital role in any democratic society.

“There was no debate around the issue of the public interest, relevant to the anonymity of suspects, nor any consideration of the need for a fair balance of rights.”

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