The full Coalition agreement, published this week, contained the following commitment:
We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.
(Section 20 “Justice”, page 24)
This issue wasn’t mentioned in either party’s manifesto; nor, I believe, during the election campaign. Neither was it something to which the previous Government aspired. It had been voted through at the Liberal Democrat annual conference in 2006, but allowed to lie dormant since. The Lords approved it as an amendment in 2003 but it went no further. As such, it’s a rather a bolt out of the blue.
In the not-too-distant past, there was no anonymity afforded to either side in a rape case. Then, in 1976, the Sexual Offences (Amendments) Act brought in reporting restrictions for both the claimant and defendant in a rape case. The situation changed 12 years later, after the Criminal Law Revision Committee recommended that defendant anonymity be lifted.
Since then, claimant anonymity has remained, although a judge can lift it in the public interest. A few high-profile cases have led to complaints that the situation is unfair; the Hamiltons in 2001, for instance; or Warren Blackwell in 2006. But such cases are few and far between, though they have of course been gleefully seized upon by the press.
The main reasons for changing the current situation can be broadly categorised as stigma and equality. Firstly, as loudly protested by the Hamiltons, an accusation of rape can lead to “life-destroying” effects, perhaps even if the verdict is not guilty or charges are never brought. Although that’s a reasonable point, it does come with an assumption that malicious allegations of rape are something other than very rare. Whereas, in fact, studies show that only 6 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false: strikingly, this rate is the same as in other types of crime. Also, if this argument were to hold water, the stigma suffered by an innocent rape defendant would need to be greater than that suffered by other defendants whose identities are also made public, for example in murder, fraud or child abuse trials. This seems highly doubtful.
Defendants have also pointed to the inequality inherent in the current system – an accuser is protected, while the accused is not – and say that this is clearly unfair. However, the comparison being made – i.e. between claimant & defendant – is perhaps not the right one. Instead, the rights of an alleged rapist could be compared with those of people facing other serious charges. Adults accused of murder, attempted murder, etc currently have no right to anonymity, so under this comparison the status quo appears equitable.
The fact that anonymity is only applied in very specific circumstances is part of the openness of the UK’s legal system, for the good of all. Exceptions are deliberately made as narrow as possible, and can be overturned even then, for example where anonymity might hamper a trial. Rape victims are treated as special cases with good reason: victims would be even less likely than they are now to report cases or progress to trial if they were named. Estimates of the number of rapes which lead to conviction are around 5 or 6 percent, so it’s surprising that a change to rape trial proceedings at this stage could be one that might only worsen the situation.
Karen Kruzycka is a Lib Dem member and activist in Romford.