Rape anonymity for the accused: well-intentioned but wrong

by Stephen Tall on May 5, 2013

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, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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4 comments

It strikes me that the concerns which arise in relation to non-anonymity are always the same and are relatively simple to address:-

* 1. – Police and/or magistrates should have some discretion over how much informaion is released in relation to a particular case. In practice this is what happens now, and in cases that don’t involve celebrities or stigmatised groups the press are fairly cooperative. In some cases it’s likely that releasing personal details will help in gathering evidence; in other cases there’s less point; in some it potentially risks exposing the identity of the complainant.

* 2. – Adequate protection needs to be in place for the suspect and those close to them if there is a) a risk of assault or harrassment or b) a risk of material loss (such as loss of employment) following the release of details but before the case has gone to trial.

* 3. – In cases where an individual is acquitted it must be incumbent upon the media to give this equivalent publicity to that they gave to the charges being brought.

If these three safeguards are in place, I see no reason why the release of names should be problematic. It’s time to stop arguing about where doubt should lie and start focusing on practicalties, for everyone’s sake.

by Jennie Kermode on May 5, 2013 at 6:14 pm. Reply #

[…] of Liberal Democrat Voice Stephen Tall has his and they are vehemently to mine. In his post Rape anonymity for the accused: well-intentioned but wrong, he concludes that, ‘Ultimately the best safeguard for maintaining a free and open society is […]

by Should those arrested for sexual offences be named in public? on May 5, 2013 at 10:33 pm. Reply #

The problem is that without anonymity then the door is opened to the press and their marvellously salacious reporting of these crimes. Hence the Daily Mail went with the “gay rape” headline. Just to excite its readers.

That is the joyous price of a free press and open reporting on matters of police enquiry.

by Douglas McLellan on May 6, 2013 at 12:02 am. Reply #

[…] identity of those arrested on suspicion of sexual assault secret. I don’t agree for reasons I set out here last year: I think transparency is the best guarantee of justice. Here’s a sample of what you think, […]

by Should the identity of sex crime suspects be kept secret before charges are laid? 73% of Lib Dem members say yes on June 14, 2014 at 2:30 pm. Reply #

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