New anonymity laws for sexual offences cases in Northern Ireland would have prevented reporting of allegations against Jimmy Savile in the region, the Society of Editors has warned.
Dawn Alford, executive director of the society described the new laws as an “affront to open justice” and said they would have a devastating effect on the reporting of sexual abuse allegations and the willingness of victims to come forward.
The new laws which came into force in Northern Ireland on Thursday exclude the public from Crown Court rape cases.
They also provide anonymity for suspects in sexual offence cases up to the point of charge. Those not subsequently charged will have anonymity for their lifetime and for 25 years after their death.
The extent of crimes by disgraced entertainer Savile only emerged after his death in 2012.
A 2016 report into his abuse found staff at the BBC missed numerous opportunities to stop Savile, who is believed to be one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders.
Northern Ireland is the first part of the UK to introduce the anonymity laws following legislation passed by the devolved Stormont Assembly in March 2022.
They followed a report by the retired senior judge, Sir John Gillen, which was commissioned after the high-profile rape trial of two former Ulster rugby players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, which ended in their acquittal.
Ms Alford said: “The new anonymity laws which have come into force in Northern Ireland today are not only an affront to open justice, but they will have a devastating effect on the reporting of sexual abuse allegations and the willingness of victims to come forward.
“The media has a duty to investigate and report on legitimate and serious allegations on behalf of the public and it is widely accepted that, in doing so, this encourages other victims to come forward.
“Granting anonymity to those suspected of sexual offences for 25 years after their death is absurd and had this law been in place in 2012, it would have prevented the naming of Jimmy Savile in Northern Ireland in relation to sexual abuse allegations made against him.”
She added: “It remains a fundamental principle of the justice system that justice must be seen to be done and, as well as setting a deeply alarming precedent for those seeking to implement changes elsewhere.
“Today’s new law will not improve confidence in the criminal justice system – it will have the total opposite effect.”
Permanent secretary at the Department of Justice Richard Pengelly said the new laws were an important step in giving greater protection and support to victims.
He said: “I hope that all these measures will enable victims to have greater confidence in the criminal justice system and that, rather than suffer in silence, they will feel able to report when they have been the victim of a sexual offence, knowing that these further protections are in place.”