Anonymity of the accused in rape cases

In light of the recent arrest of Tory MP Nigel Evans for rape and sexual assault, the Government may be questioning itself as to why it decided not to extend anonymity in rape cases to the accused. If it had taken up this issue and made changes to the law in order to protect people accused of rape and sexual assault then the public would not currently be aware of Nigel Evans arrest. The only time the public would become aware was if he was convicted.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 introduced anonymity to victims of rape and sexual assault. This created a lifelong ban on their identity being revealed unless they choose to identify themselves. This anonymity is given to victims largely due to the stigma that comes with being a victim of such an intimate and violating offence.

Anonymity for men accused of rape is not a new idea conjured up by the latest coalition government. It was introduced in 1976 by the Labour Government and repealed by the next Conservative Government in 1988. The Liberal Democrats included it in their 2006 party policy and the current coalition Government proposed introducing it into law only a few years ago. The topic was dropped without being taken forward on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence that a new policy was needed.

Granting anonymity to a person who is not yet guilty of a crime arguably coincides with one of the fundamental principles of the law in the UK – the notion of being innocent until proven guilty.

There are clear grounds for the argument that men accused of rape should remain anonymous unless they are proven to be guilty by a court of law. The stigma attached to being accused of rape or sexual assault is such that it affects the accused’s entire life and their family’s lives. The accused may lose family and friends, their job, be subjected to violence or harassment or have to leave the area in which they live. This is particularly true of a person in the public eye whose accusations are documented throughout the media. If a person is found to be innocent or the accusations are withdrawn then there is often less media attention surrounding this type of story. Many will therefore be assumed guilty, even without trial. Many people believe that a person should not have to experience this if they have done nothing wrong. If they remained anonymous this would never happen.

However, there are also reasons why the accused should be ‘named and shamed’. Arguably, being accused of rape or sexual assault is no worse than being accused of other offences such as child murder. If anonymity is given to one offence then a snowball effect may occur and anonymity demanded for all sorts of offences. One of the features of the justice system in the UK is that it is open to the public. If people accused of crimes are given anonymity then the public will no longer be able to attend criminal court and have the access to the legal system that is currently in place.

Granting anonymity to an accused means that there can be no public appeals for more victims to come forward. In cases such as that of Jimmy Saville, this could have been potentially disastrous. If he had been alive and capable of being prosecuted a lack of victims could have meant that charges were never brought against him. The fact that the allegations came to light after his death would mean that had anonymity been in place the public would never have been made aware of the accusations.

A further argument put forward for accused people to not be granted anonymity is that it is disrespectful to the victim. This may be true in cases where the accused is guilty, however, in cases where the allegations are false and the accused is entirely innocent the lack of respect appears to be aimed at the accused rather than the other way around.

It is unlikely that this issue will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Any form of censorship should not be taken lightly and granting anonymity to a person accused of a crime has an effect on the way the justice system works. The Coalition Government may now be regretting the decision to shelve the idea in the light of the recent accusations; however, to rush into a change in the law is likely to be reactive rather than a logically decided and necessary amendment.