Anonymity for Defendants in sex crime cases?

16th September 2013 Media Law

Michael Le Vell's recent acquittal on child sex abuse charges has reopened the debate about whether defendants in sexual offence cases should be given anonymity.

At the start of any criminal trial, juries are reminded that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, even when the defendant is ultimately found not guilty, the public identification of the person charged inevitably exposes them to reputational damage and stigma (not to mention stress etc).

Defendants charged with sexual offences are not ordinarily given anonymity. The most obvious reason for this approach is the desire to uphold the principle of "open justice. Derogations from open justice are only allowed where strictly necessary and the courts will not usually allow anonymity simply to protect reputation.

Also, in sexual offence cases, there is the possibility that legal proceedings (including pre-charge arrest) will cause other complainants to come forward with relevant evidence. The Police investigations into the Jimmy Saville child abuse scandal and the conviction of offenders such as the celebrity Stuart Hall demonstrates this in action.

By contrast, complainants in sexual offence cases are given anonymity.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 prohibits the publication of any material identifying someone who has made an allegation that they have been the victim of a sexual offence. This rule effectively provides lifetime anonymity for victims.

Why have such a rule? The purpose is obviously to encourage victims of sexual offences to come forward and report their allegations to the Police.

The rise of social media has brought complainant anonymity into focus recently because some victims have been publically named online. Several individuals were convicted of illegally naming the rape victim in the prosecution of the former Sheffield United footballer, Ched Evans.

Are the rules about to change in relation to the naming of people charged with sexual offences? It seems unlikely.

Lord Justice Leveson recommended in his report into media ethics and standards that "arrestees (for all types of criminal case) should not be named by the media. However, Leveson did not go so far as to suggest that those charged with offences should be given anonymity.

Equally, Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions (until October 2013), recently said that the system should allow "wriggle room in relation to the identification of individuals following arrest in certain cases. However, Mr Starmer said that, as a "blanket rule, suspects should be identified if charged.

The debate regarding the naming of defendants in sexual offences cases is unlikely to go away. Whether there is the political will to change the anonymity rules in the light of recent high profile cases remains to be seen.

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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