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Should alleged rapists be given anonymity until charged?


Nick Mutch
There are two parts to this argument. Firstly, anonymity is an important aspect of the principle of justice that no one should be punished based on an accusation, because of the harm this can do to potentially innocent people.
Secondly, anonymity before charge for those accused does not have a negative impact on victims; rather the opposite, it makes it more likely that fair and impartial justice will be served to them, rather than to the kangaroo court of public opinion which obsesses over leaked messages or texts, as is currently happening in the case of the girl who accused ex-Union President Ben Sullivan of rape.
One of the most important principles of a fair legal system is not just innocent until proven guilty; it is that no one should be punished before due legal process has taken its course. Being labelled a rapist without justification is a devastating form of punishment even if, as in Sullivan’s case, charges are never bought. The damage to one’s reputation is virtually irreparable, and the word ‘rape’ will always remain next to one’s name.
Of course, if legal process finds one guilty, this is a perfectly appropriate punishment, along with a lengthy prison sentence. But there is no reason that this cannot wait until it has been established whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant punishment. It has been argued that by granting anonymity to those accused of sex crimes, we would be making a special exemption for this criminal category. The Home Secretary recently instructed the police forces that “there should be anonymity at arrest although I know that there will be circumstances in which the public interest means that an arrested suspect should be named”, though she rightly stated that “except under exceptional circumstances anonymity should not be given at the point of charge”.
The Association of Chief Police Officers’ (ACPO) official guidelines state, “Save in clearly identified circumstances… the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released by police forces to the press or the public.”
So it is the identification of suspects, not their anonymity, which is the unusual circumstance. All a change in the law would do is give what is standard practice the force of law. Exception for exceptional circumstances eliminates the objection to anonymity for suspects made by the New Statesman, which cites a serial rape suspect who absconded from bail and escaped the country but could not be named because of anonymity laws; this exception would obviously apply to cases of absconding bail.
Why, then, would I waive anonymity after charge? I admit there are problems and inconsistencies with this position. But one of the most important aspects of justice is the notion that it should be, to the greatest extent possible, transparent.
Just as legislature acts as a check and balance on the executive, public perception acts as an (albeit unwieldy) check on legislative power, and helps to ensure that our justice system functions in a manner open to scrutiny. The argument that this public scrutiny allows more witnesses or evidence to come forward is a legitimate one; but once again, there is no reason that this cannot wait until the opening of court proceedings.
For consistent application of justice, for the protections of the rights of both victims and accused it makes sense to grant anonymity, at least until the closure of a proper police investigation resulting in charge.

Niamh McIntyre

An article recently published by the Oxford Student ‘Ben Sullivan’s victim “knew her claims were false”’ was highly offensive for a number of reasons which have been discussed extensively since it appeared online on the 30th June. However, perhaps the most compelling reason for the outrage it provoked was the way in which it effectively compromised the anonymity of Sullivan’s alleged victim, publishing details which could have made her identifiable within the Oxford student community. The anonymity of alleged victims once a claim has been made is legally guaranteed, regardless of whether the proceedings are ongoing or, as in this case, dropped on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

There was, however, a marked counter-response: if Ben Sullivan’s name was allowed to be revealed before he had been charged, why should we protect the identities of the victims?

This is a debate which is reignited every time there is insufficient evidence to prosecute a notable person, or a jury cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant committed rape. Nigel Evans, repeatedly compared to Ben Sullivan, is the most famous example of a defendant who, once cleared, becomes a vocal advocate for anonymity in rape cases; Ben himself in a Daily Mail interview supports “the right to anonymity as the inquiry is at a preliminary stage”.

This reaction is understandable given their personal experience; of course, the experience of being accused of rape for Sullivan and Evans was undeniably traumatic. However, the portrayal of both figures in the mainstream media after the declaration of innocence ironically demonstrates the immediate rehabilitation and mass public support for those cleared of rape charges.

Ultimately, a small number of isolated individual experiences should not be used to overwrite those of tens of thousands of men and women who are raped every year in the UK. The most damaging consequence of a change in the law regarding anonymity is the inevitable implication that false rape accusations are a significant threat which must be accounted for in legislation. We do not have discussions about anonymity when a defendant is cleared of murder, or drugs charges: this debate serves to perpetuate the idea of ‘crying rape’ by implying that false accusations are far more common in rape cases than in other felonies, an attitude explicitly betrayed in Peter Lloyd’s article in the Daily Mail, which asserts that anonymity would “deter anyone from making false claims out of spite, seeing the accuracy of convictions rise – not fall”.

The CPS last year noted that 0.6% rape allegations over a 17-month period were proven to be false. When these statistics are taken with appalling conviction rates (on average, 1,070 convictions compared to around 78,000 victims of rape per year), it should also be noted that a decision by the CPS not to bring charges due to insufficient evidence is not unqualified proof that claims were false, a distinction often missed in claims for the prevalence of false accusations. Providing anonymity for those accused of rape reinforces the idea that victims will not be believed, a myth that ultimately leads to 85% of rapes never being reported.

We must then consider the consequences that anonymity would have in the context of the incredibly low reporting and attrition rates of rape. Melissa McEwan’s comprehensive definition of rape culture explicitly refers to this consideration. She argues, “Rape culture is the pervasive narrative that a rape victim who reports hir rape is readily believed and well-supported, instead of acknowledging that reporting a rape is a huge personal investment… embarrassing, shameful, hurtful, frustrating.”

There are clear advantages to naming the alleged rapist,  the most obvious being the encouragement of other victims to come forward. This is something Sullivan himself has repeatedly acknowledged, “I understand why naming people is useful – naming Jimmy Savile obviously had a huge impact in getting people to come forward.” It was for this reason that the Sexual Offences Act, which used to offer anonymity to alleged rapists, was amended in 1988: police forces needed, and continue to need, to reveal the identity of rapists before they are charged to conduct the most effective investigations and improve attrition and conviction rates which are almost universally perceived as inadequate.

Women live with the threat of rape constantly hanging over them, a culture of fear which dictates how they should dress, how they should act in public, and where they should go at night. As Willard Foxton convincingly proposes in a recent New Statesman article, we might make significant progress in ending the endemic social problem of rape if there were instead a culture of fear about the consequences of raping someone.

I would agree with Ruth Hall’s, a spokeswoman for Women Against Rape, statement on this question of anonymity, that legislative reform “should pay attention to the 94% of reported cases that do not end in conviction rather than the few that are false”. Evans’ and Sullivan’s must look beyond their personal experiences, and examine the implications that anonymity would have in a culture in which 1 in 5 women (and thousands of men) will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.

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