Rape anonymity for the accused: well-intentioned but wrong

Nigel EvansRape anonymity — the right of the accused in rape cases to have their identity kept secret — is in the news again today, after Conservative MP and deputy speaker Nigel Evans was named publicly following his arrest on suspicion of rape and sexual assault.

The Coalition Agreement said the Government would ‘extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants’. Though the pledge hadn’t been included in either party’s manifestos, it was Lib Dem policy, agreed at the 2006 party conference. The Lib Dems’ then home office minister Lynne Featherstone was in favour of the idea, arguing ‘It is clearly appalling for someone who is innocent to find their life and reputation ruined by false accusation and trial.’

It was a controversial pledge at the time — Karen Kruzycka criticised it here on LDV at the time: ‘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.’ — and was dropped within a couple of months.

Karen’s point still stands. While it would of course be horrific to be falsely accused of rape, there’s no evidence that false accusations are more common in rape cases than in other types of crime. And it wouldn’t have protected someone like Christopher Jefferies whose reputation was notoriously dragged through the mud by the press when he was arrested in connection with Joanna Yeates’ murder.

More importantly, anonymity wouldn’t serve the cause of justice, something the Telegraph pointed out after Stuart Hall’s admission of sexual assault crimes last week:

After the case made headlines, 10 more women came forward with allegations of assault. None of them knew each other, and almost two decades separated the first and last attacks: unless his identity had been shared with the public, they would never have found out that they were not Hall’s only victim. Indeed, one woman who came forward said that she did so only because she heard about his arrest while listening to the radio. On April 16 this year, Hall pleaded guilty to 14 indecent assaults on 13 girls, one as young as nine years old.

Ultimately the best safeguard for maintaining a free and open society is an accountable and open system of justice. Secrecy, however well-intentioned, is hardly ever preferable to transparency, however messy.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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24 Comments

  • Nick Thornsby Nick Thornsby 5th May '13 - 6:21pm

    There are good arguments in favour of anonymity and disclosure; I think I lean towards anonymity.

    The balance is between the permanent reputational damage caused by being wrongly arrested/charged for a sexual offence and the benefits to wider justice of naming suspects.

    While the Stuart Hall case serves as a good example of the latter, in that more complainants came forward after he was named, I suspect that sort of example is rare, not least because of the nature of most sexual offences.

    Is it worth the damage caused to those wrongly suspected in order to make conviction in a small number of cases more likely? I don’t think it is.

    And the Chris Jefferies case doesn’t help much I don’t think; the problem in his case was the nature of the coverage, for which he later secured several payments in libel actions. In the case of an arrest or charge of a sexual offence it is not the nature of the media coverage that is the problem, it is the mere naming which does the damage.

    As Graeme says, the case for anonymity at arrest stage is much more compelling, whereas at charge it is a much more finely balanced thing.

  • AlanPlatypus 5th May '13 - 7:23pm

    Remember John Leslie?

    I do agree that the problem here is selecting the lesser of two evils, it just depends on which you define as the lesser evil; releasing the name of the accused in the hope that more victims come forward or anonymity to prevent the life of the accused being ruined. I tend to lean more towards anonymity but would prefer that the release of a name could be done so at the discretion of those dealing with the case if they think it is in the public interest.

  • Tony Dawson 5th May '13 - 7:33pm

    @Nick Thornsby:

    “Is it worth the damage caused to those wrongly suspected in order to make conviction in a small number of cases more likely?”

    Not just making conviction more likely. Thereby topping a serial offender being free to abuse more women/children.

  • Tony Dawson 5th May '13 - 7:34pm

    NB. “Not successfully convicted of a rape charge” and “falsely accused of rape” are not the same thing.

  • It’s difficult, but most crimes do not include anonymity for the accused. On the other hand accusations of rape carry a stigma. Personally, I think it’s probably right to name an arrested suspect. In the case of certain kinds of serial sex offender the evidence is an accumulative pattern of behavior. Jimmy Seville may have been stopped if allegation against him had been made public. He was certainly interviewed by the police on a number of occasion as was Ian Huntley. In truth the police are probably being too cautious about making arrests in some cases where is evidence of a pattern of abusive sexual behavior.

  • Simon McGrath 5th May '13 - 8:56pm

    Why one earth should someone have their life ruined by a false accusation when their accuser can stay anonymous? Surely it is only fair that both people should have the right to remain anonymous?

  • Eddie Sammon 5th May '13 - 8:56pm

    I don’t see how rape is considered more reputation damaging than mass murder. It pains me the way too many politicians seem to love discrimination.

    Anonymity for the accused is a difficult one for me. I would favour keeping anonymity out of it – in one way it helps prevent malicious rumours, which can also be damaging.

  • paul barker 5th May '13 - 10:27pm

    I have to agree with Steven on this, most cases of rape/sexual assault/child abuse seem to be by serial offenders & all these crimes tend to generate guilt & shame in the victims, discouraging accusations in the first place. Victims dont expect to be taken seriously & often arent & seeing another victim come forward can make the difference.
    I dont think we are anywhere near accepting the scale of of abse yet, theres a lot more to come.

  • @Eddie

    “I don’t see how rape is considered more reputation damaging than mass murder. It pains me the way too many politicians seem to love discrimination. ”

    Interesting point. I suppose a counter point could be that the old adage of “there’s no smoke without fire” is rarely applied to people found not guilty of murder, but with crimes such as rape the accusation never quite seems to go away.

  • I personally feel that more should be done to alleviate any feelings of guilt or shame associated with victimhood.

    A more liberal attitude where victims felt supported enough to be open in public about their experiences would set an example where justice was more able to be achieved.

    Ultimately issues surrounding sexual crimes are a reflection of attitudes toward power in society – abuse is the result of people who take advantage of inequality rather than seeking the psychological tools to develop healthy relationships.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th May '13 - 12:39am

    Hi ATF, I don’t think that people find it harder to clear their name from being proven not guilty of rape compared with other crimes.

    I think Simon McGrath makes a very good point saying surely it is only fair that if the accuser has the right to remain anonymous then so should the defendant.

    I would have no major problem with disclosure being restricted until prosecution for all crimes. The very important thing is not to treat rape defendants differently to all other crimes because this helps peddle the horrible myth that women cry rape.

    When push comes to shove, I agree with Stephen in being in favour of openness and transparency.

  • there is research by a man called Lisak. All those commenting in favour of anonymity because they think serial offenders are not common need to read it. And then read it again so it sinks in.

  • I, like many, sympatise with Stephen’s points, but find Graeme’s points to be the ones I agree with. The point about people coming forward in ‘high’ profile cases should not be ignored, but at the same time, high profile cases are generally a theme to themselves in the Law.

  • “The media need control, and standards of reporting to adhere to.. – freedom with responsibility.”

    Of course, that would be one advantage of a name being released only when a suspect is charged. Because of legal constraints the media are much more restrained in their reporting after a charge has been made.

  • Richard Wingfield 6th May '13 - 2:20pm

    At the risk of repeating what has been said by many others, I, too, sympathise with Stephen’s arguments but find Graeme’s more compelling. The principle of our criminal justice system that one is innocent until proven guilty is an excellent one. Unfortunately, far too many people just do not follow it in practice. That old adage “there’s no smoke without fire” is one a great many of us find irresistible; and, after all, why not? If the CPS believe that they have sufficient evidence that a conviction is more likely than not, then something suspect must have happened? There may be a perfectly innocent explanation but, more often than not, there isn’t. As such, those arrested or charged for offences, particularly sexual offences, are treated differently, and their name will forever be associated with the alleged offences thanks to the internet, regardless of the outcome of their case.

    A presumption of anonymity, with applications for disclosure treated on a case-by-case basis with clear permission for disclosure in the circumstances Graeme has suggested sounds eminently sensible to me.

  • Andrew Suffield 7th May '13 - 9:27am

    The balance is between the permanent reputational damage caused by being wrongly arrested/charged for a sexual offence and the benefits to wider justice of naming suspects.

    To point out the part which seems to have eluded mention: there’s no reason why we can’t have both. Try the case before the court, under conditions of anonymity. If the accused is found to be guilty, then reveal their identity, to encourage others to come forward and maybe tack another few concurrent sentences on.

    If the accused is found to be innocent, then we most certainly should not be encouraging a media fishing expedition into their personal life in hope of finding something that they can be convicted for. It is unjust and unjustifiable to treat an innocent person who was accused differently to all the other innocent people who weren’t accused.

  • “While it would of course be horrific to be falsely accused of rape, there’s no evidence that false accusations are more common in rape cases than in other types of crime.”

    But it’s impossible to make anonymous allegation of rape for other types of crime – only for rape. It may be traumatic to be accused of other crimes, but you can’t do so anonymously. It’s this imbalance that reforms would address.

  • I struggle a lot with this issue. The recent ‘celeb’ cases of Stuart hall and aggro santos highlight both sides of the coin. The publicity surrounding Stuart hall’s charge empowered other victims to come forward and helping in achieving a conviction, however in the case of aggro santos a young man’s career and life has undoubtedly been damaged severely by the publicity around his rape case, which he has now been found innocent of all charges, but lets be clear his life will never get back to where it was before. @tony Dawson’s point about being found innocent is not the same thing as being falsely accused are not the same thing, for me perfectly highlighs the stigma attached to people who are found innocent. If being found innocent by a jury is not good enough to fully clear your name, then I really believe that naming dependents is a very dangerous game whereby the police and CPS somehow become quasi judicial. To be punished for a crime that you have been found innocent of can’t be right in a civilised society, regrettably guilty people will get off but in my opinion I’d rather see the guilty walk free than the innocent punished for crimes that they did not commit.

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