The conviction of a man who used social media to name the woman at the centre of the Ulster rugby rape trial should act as a deterrent for future cases, police have said.
Sean McFarland from Belfast pleaded guilty on Wednesday to breaching the lifetime ban on naming a complainant in a sex offence case.
It is understood to be the first ever conviction for such an offence in Northern Ireland.
The 36-year-old from Rinnalea Gardens in the city was fined £300 and ordered to pay an additional £15 offenders’ levy at Belfast Magistrates’ Court.
Former Ireland and Ulster players Paddy Jackson, 26, and Stuart Olding, 25, were both acquitted of raping the woman after a high-profile trial in Belfast earlier this year.
Complainants in rape and other sex crime cases are entitled to life-long anonymity.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Detective Chief Inspector Zoe McKee said: “We welcome the conviction of Sean McFarland today after he pleaded guilty to one charge of breaching the lifetime ban on reporting the identity of a complainant in a rape trial which took place in Belfast earlier this year.
“This is the first time that anyone in Northern Ireland had been prosecuted for breaching this right to anonymity and should act as a deterrent to anyone who names a complainant in any serious sexual offence, who are entitled to lifelong anonymity.
“The Police Service of Northern Ireland is fully committed to investigating offences of this nature.
“We understand how difficult it can be for anyone to report a rape.
“I would encourage anyone who has been the victim of any sexual crime either recently or in the past to contact police or to speak to someone about what has happened.”
Head of the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service’s serious crime unit, Marianne O’Kane, urged social media users to avoid public commentary on any live court proceedings and to respect a complainant’s right to anonymity.
“Complainants of rape and other sexual offences are automatically guaranteed anonymity for life, except in very limited circumstances,” she said.
“The public, in particular users of social media, need to be acutely aware of the importance of that right.
“This case underlines that it is a criminal offence to publish the name, address or image of any complainant of a serious sexual offence if it is likely to lead to the complainant’s identification and we will prosecute for such an offence where the test for prosecution is met.”
After the jury unanimously found them not guilty, Jackson and Olding were sacked by club and country for involvement in explicit WhatsApp chats that were revealed during the marathon trial.
They are now playing for teams in France.
McFarland, who could have faced a maximum fine of £5,000, was one of two people investigated for alleged breaches of the anonymity law, but prosecutors in Northern Ireland decided not be pursue the other case due to “insufficient evidence”.