Anonymity for Suspected Rapists

Anonymity for Suspected Rapists

Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, has recently called for reform for suspects accused of rape, stating that:

until they have been proved to have done something as awful as this, I think there is a strong argument in cases of this sort, because they carry such a stigma with them, to maintain the defendant’s anonymity, until he is convicted.

McGowan’s view is not unique. Legislation was passed in 1976 which granted men such a privilege and was eventually repealed in 1998. However, in 2010 the Government proposed to reintroduce the law, but this was met with such fierce opposition from rape support groups and female MPs that the proposal was abandoned. So why does the idea of anonymity for suspected rapists continually find its way on to the agenda?

It is argued that the effect that an accusation of rape can have on a person’s life can be so damaging and traumatic that it can interfere with the presumption of their innocence before they are convicted or acquitted. However, it is also arguable that the potential impact would be the same for any crime of such a heinous nature. So why are calls not being made for anonymity for suspected murderers? Although those who call for the reform have focused on upholding the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, many argue that this is specifically an issue in rape because of the suggestion that ‘women lie about rape’.

The view that women who report rape are often lying about what has happened to them is fundamentally untrue. Findings by the Home Office in 2010 show that the number of rape allegations proven to be false is at the three per cent mark. This is no less or more than for any other crime. A study by the Crown Prosecution Service published in March 2013 further helps to dispel this stereotype. The report found that out of 5,651 prosecutions for rape there were only 35 prosecutions for false allegations of rape. More importantly, the report provides some context for those rare cases were false allegations are made. Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, noted that the report found many of these people to be:

young, often vulnerable people, and sometimes even children. Around half of the cases involved people aged 21 and under, and some involved people with mental health difficulties. From the cases analysed, the indication is that it is therefore extremely rare that a suspect deliberately makes a false allegation of rape or domestic violence purely out of malice. It is within this context that the issue should be viewed, so that myths and stereotypes around these cases are not able to take hold.

The evidence suggests that there is no significant inclination for women to lie about sexual attacks and thus it seems unjustified to target rape in particular as a problem area for false reports. However, much evidence still suggests that this view is ingrained in the justice system. One only has to look to the failings of the Metropolitan Police to understand that this opinion is still held. The serial rapist, John Worboys, who was convicted of committing at least 85 sex attacks, slipped through the system’s fingers despite being reported to police in July 2007. He further went on to commit another seven attacks before being apprehended. An Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report found that officers ‘adopted a mind-set of believing Worboys and not the victim’ which lead to ‘missed crucial investigative opportunities’ such as a ‘failure to secure evidence such as CCTV footage, forensic swabs, and blood and urine tests promptly’.

The view that women who report rape are often lying about what has happened to them is fundamentally untrue.

Police failings were also found by a report carried out by the BBC in 2009. In London alone, hundreds of rape allegations were either removed from official records or did not end up in the records at all. Many campaign groups which support victims of rape claim that this is only more evidence that the police remain unwilling to prosecute in cases of sexual attacks and often do not take allegations seriously. Unfortunately, this is not an issue which seems set to change. In February 2013 the IPCC again published a report which found that in a specialist police unit dealing with sex crimes in the London Borough of Southwark, many officers had made remarks about not believing allegations and were persuading victims to drop allegations. This was done to create the appearance that reported crimes were being investigated correctly and had been dealt with in order to boost performance figures.

The IPCC noted that ‘the approach of failing to believe victims… was wholly inappropriate’ and that the police had lost ‘sight of what policing is about – protecting the public and deterring and detecting crime’. It seems clear that there are flaws in the investigative system which can often lead to injustices for the victims. Sadly, these inadequacies are often fuelled by the view that women lie about rape. It is argued that these issues need to be addressed, and governmental and IPCC recommendations on how these problems can be resolved should focus on ensuring the deliverance of justice to all victims of sexual crimes.

But what about the suspect’s right to justice? Of course, all defendants should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, and as the law currently stands, suspected rapists are not treated any differently in the legal process than suspects of other crimes. So why should they, specifically, be given anonymity? It is generally accepted that murder is the most serious crime – what’s more, the murder of a child is probably seen by our society as one of the most abhorrent crimes that one can commit. The stigma attached to any offence committed against a child is just as significant, if not more significant, than the stigma attached to rape. For an example, we need only look at the recent case of Stuart Hazell who was arrested on suspicion of murdering 12-year-old Tia Sharp. Hazell had to appear via video link to the Old Bailey because of fears that he would be attacked by members of the public after a great number of death threats were posted online. He is currently being detained in Belmarsh Prison where he is under isolation and a 24-hour watch to ensure that the other prisoners cannot harm him following more threats against his life.

Of course, all defendants should be treated as innocent before proven guilty, and as the law currently stands, suspected rapists are not treated any differently in the legal process than suspects of other crimes.

If defendants of other serious crimes do not receive anonymity, it seems that the argument for anonymity for suspected rapists is unpersuasive. It can be argued that defendants of rape are currently not suffering as great an abuse of justice as is claimed by legal professionals and politicians supporting this change. There is a great stigma attached to many serious crimes yet there is no award of anonymity. Therefore, until these areas are also addressed, it can only be argued that the calls for reform are unnecessary.

If those accused of sexual crimes were to receive anonymity it can be said that this rather encroaches on the victim’s right to justice and the right to a fair trial. As noted by the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper:

to single out rape defendants to remain anonymous would send a message to juries and to victims that uniquely in rape cases the victim should not be believed.

Most importantly, awarding anonymity to sex crime suspects could be detrimental to the investigations of the police into the crime. It is often the case that the defendant has committed the crime before. Making sure that the suspect is named could bring forward other victims and potential witnesses which could help to build a case against the defendant. The case of Jimmy Savile is a perfect example of this; national coverage of the allegations against Savile meant that other victims finally found the strength to come forward about the crimes they had suffered too, adding to the evidence against him.

It is clear that the crime of rape has long been, and seems set to remain, a controversial and somewhat problematic area for the legal system. However, granting suspected rapists anonymity would only serve to further complicate the problems. There are evidential flaws in the way that police investigate sexual crimes and these issues are extremely worrying, especially when some of these flaws are attributed to unfounded views. Until these issues are addressed, victims are suffering an injustice. Much more needs to be done by the police to ensure that the victims can feel safe in the knowledge that, at the very least, a thorough line of investigation will take place. On the other side, those accused of rape are not experiencing any greater abuse of their legal rights through being named than other defendants. The calls for reform regarding sexual crimes should be focused on improving the legal process for the victims, as here is where the real problem lies.

Making sure that the suspect is named could bring forward other victims and potential witnesses which could help to build a case against the defendant.

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