Newcastle child sexual assault case:’Naming and shaming’ on social media can affect how a matter proceeds in court

THE sexual assault of a child is confronting and sickening to any person who recognises the specialvulnerability of children, and their lack of defences when adults abuse their power.
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It is why the Australian public so strongly supported establishment of theRoyal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2012. As a community we said yes to a five-year inquiry that was, at its heart, about the rights of the child to remain innocent,safe,loved and respected.

It is also why there is a lot of emotion about court cases involving the sexual assault of children, particularly now that the royal commission has laid bare the potential lifelong impacts of such crimes.

RELATED: Naming and shaming could complicate a trial and land you in legal trouble

The Australian community was shocked last week at reports an 11-year-old girl was abducted at Adamstown Heights on her way to school and sexually assaulted over a number of hours. The police response was immediate and comprehensive. The community responded well by providing police with a lot of information.

Aman was charged over the weekend and will appear in court on Wednesday.

On social media sites the accusedman has been named, photos of him have been posted, and he’s been declaredguilty by some members of the public. People have made extreme suggestions about what should happen to him.

On social media sites a man has been named, photos of him have been posted, and he’s been declared guilty. People have made extreme suggestions about what should happen to him. Picture: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

In some posts people have acknowledged that identifying the accused man on social media might prejudice thetrial. But they have justified their posts on “naming and shaming” grounds, or as a show of support for the child and her family.

There is no indication any of the comments have been made by people who know the family, or have any direct knowledge of the incident.

In court on Sunday a registrar agreed to a defence lawyer’s request to place a non-publicationorder over the charged man’s identity, based on an argument he could be at risk while in custody.

The prosecution opposed the suppression order but the registrar agreed with the defence.

The problem here is that people on social media who “nameand shame” individuals in these kinds of cases are in breach of the non-publication order and handdefence lawyersarguments on a plate. And in my experience these suppression order requests are becoming more common.

But I also strongly urge people not to take matters into their own hands. “Naming and shaming”, while it might provide some emotional release, really can affect how a matter proceeds in court. It really can prove a problem.

The mob rule approach can also get things terribly wrong. There have been appalling cases where social media posters have named completely innocent people, with tragicresults.

I’m not arguing that the criminal justice system has provided justice to all child sexual abuse victims in the past. The royal commission made clear just how many obstacles there were to overcome. It also provided 85 recommendations for change to address those obstacles, and the states appear to be responding well to those recommendations.

What I am arguing is that the rule of law matters, and the right to a fair trial based on the fundamental principle of a person being presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The abduction of a child is a shocking thing. But it is worth remembering that only a small minority of child sexual assaults involve people not known to the child.

The vast majority involve a parent, relative, family friend, acquaintance or neighbour.

At a media conference last week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urged Australians to “speak up” if they have suspicions aboutchildren being abused. In that situation we are protecting children. We are being members of the village raising the child.

But the “speaking up” was about alerting authorities like police. It was about being alert to warning signs and not looking the other way. It was not about taking matters into our own hands.

Social media posting might allow people to let off steam, but it is inherently dangerous.

The young girl and her family are entitled to our strong community support,and our restraint, during what is already a very difficult time.

Newcastle Herald

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