The question of whether or not suspects in criminal proceedings should remain anonymous until they are charged is one that has continued to be debated in all corners of the justice system for many years. Recently, the focus has been on protecting the identity of those individuals accused of sexual offences such as rape and sexual assault. Critics of the proposal for anonymity have long argued that it is not in the public interest for there to be such a policy as it may discourage other victims to come forward and report crimes. Others argue that it is an attempt to curtail the freedom of the press to be able to report such matters that they feel the public should be aware of.
Last month, Lord Lamont spoke passionately to peers about the experience of his friend, Lord Brittan, who was falsely accused of rape, but died before he was exonerated. Lord Lamont was addressing peers in respect of a proposed amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, which would grant anonymity to individuals being investigated for sex offences until a decision is taken to actually charge them. The amendment was tabled by Lord Paddick, who previously said that “sexual offences are a special category of crime and those accused should be given the statutory protection from having their names published or broadcast up until the point of charge unless a judge rules otherwise.”
Whilst a number of peers backed the amendment it was reported last month that ultimately the government was “not persuaded that legislation is the right way forward at this time.” The reason provided was that the police should have operational independence when deciding whether to name a suspect and that ultimately the Government does not want to create an environment where victims are reluctant to come forward. However, such reasoning fails to recognise that any such anonymity would cease at the point of charge and there is nothing to therefore stop further victims coming forward at that stage. Such a justification is also predicated on the unknown prospect that someone else may come forward with a similar complaint. Whilst undoubtedly in recent years this has happened, not every case will involve multiple victims and rejecting the proposal to legislate to protect suspects on the basis that it just might discourage other victims to come forward feels unsatisfactory.
Whilst the Government said it acknowledges the “pain that some people have gone through in the last few years due to being wrongly accused of crimes which they did not commit” ultimately the rejection of Lord Paddick’s proposal to legislate for anonymity is a huge set back to redressing the imbalance between our attitude to the rights of victims as opposed to suspects.
We have observed through recent high profile cases the devastation caused to individuals that are wrongly accused of these crimes. Furthermore, there is no control over how and when these suspects are named in the press. Clear controls on the way in which this occurs is of paramount importance in order to protect the basic rights of these individuals for which no charging decision has yet been made, and may never be. Legislating for such controls does not mean that the police would be prevented from ever naming a suspect in a sex investigation at the pre-charge stage. Rather, it would mean that the Police, Press and any other relevant authority would have to make a carefully thought out and justified application to an independent Judge in order to be able to do so.
This article was also published in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, behind a paywall.