In the event that you, the reader of this blog, were to be arrested and charged with an offence, whether it be criminal damage or a sexual offence, I am sure that you would want to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This, as great a notion as it is, is far from effective in its entirety. For example, when Sky broke the news that yet another arrest was made by those involved with Operation Yewtree, I saw numerous tweets calling the arrested (as I have in previous cases) a ‘dirty bastard’ (excuse the expletive) and ‘hang him’ even before the trial had begun.
So the argument is therefore laid out simply; should those charged, or even arrested for, sexual offences have their identity sealed from the public domain? This is an argument that I believe has only one answer; Yes.
Background to anonymity: Anonymity was granted to rape defendants under the 1976 Sexual Offences Act but removed in 1988 and in 2006 the Liberal Democrats voted for anonymity at their conference and in 2010 the issue turned up again in the coalition agreement, but a pledge to introduce anonymity for rape suspects in England and Wales until conviction was dropped when ministers said there was not enough evidence to justify a change in the law.
Analysis: In Germany, those accused of rape or other serious sexual offences are not named until they are convicted by a court of law. However, in the UK Police will release the names of those accused for investigative and evidence-gathering purposes. A major example of this is those charged under Operation Yewtree, where the name Jimmy Saville was released which led to an increase in complainants. Now, this could have two sides of reasoning. One is that these complainants were ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ and the other is that, by realising that a victim had come forward, they found the courage to finally report their incident to the police. I want to be very careful not to suggest that all complainants who come forward after a name is released are ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ because this will not always be the case and I have trust in the police authorities, the CPS, DPP, etc to make an evidence-based conclusion regarding each individual complaint.
However, when someone is charged, but not convicted, with a sexual offence it can have a profound and long lasting affect on the accused. It can lead to the loss or suspension of a job, as in Le Vell and Bill Roache’s case, for example. But more than this, it can put a label on that person for the rest of their lives because, despite being found not guilty, there will inevitably be people who truly believe that he or she did commit the offence. This can lead to emotional distress from being labeled a sex offender, pedophile, pervert, etc regardless of the outcome of the case. I am aware that this topic divides everyone because it also affects the victim because it can lead to them believing that nobody believes them and it may lead to other complainants not coming forward.
In February this year Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, seemingly agreed with this analysis after she said defendants should get the same right to anonymity as complainants in which she told BBC Radio 5 Live “Until they (rape defendants) have been proven to have done something as awful as this, I think there is a strong argument in cases of this sort – because they carry such stigma with them – to maintain the defendant’s anonymity”. She did, however, add that there were arguments on both sides. When anonymity had been accorded to defendants before “there was a sense that perhaps it was affording too much protection to people. There is obviously a public interest in open justice – people would say they’re entitled to know not simply who’s convicted, but who’s been accused.”
Case example highlighting adverse effect of not affording anonymity to defendants: Terry Harrison, 34, lost his home and had it attacked and burgled after single mother Shirley Prince, 42, claimed he raped her during a house party in May 2007. She later admitted perverting the course of justice last Tuesday and was jailed for three months after appearing at Durham Crown Court. Unsurprisingly, Harrison argued that “If a person has done such a heinous crime then they should be named and shamed, I agree – but not until they have been done for it. I was guilty until I was proven innocent and even when I was proven innocent I’m still getting judged.” He further revealed the devastating emotional impact the false accusation had inflicted upon him, adding “I contemplated taking my own life on a couple of occasions, I was on the Middlesbrough bridge, I couldn’t believe what was happening”.
Again, I want to be absolutely clear that I do not want to suggest I think this about all cases included sexual offences because genuine victims are inflicted with much more severe emotional distress. However, in concluding this analysis it is my opinion that not affording anonymity to those accused of such crimes can lead to a whole range of issues, including the continuous judgment by others. Please vote in the poll below to cast your opinion on this matter.