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.