Anonymity in serious sexual offences…time to change?

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 sections 4 and 5 provide for the anonymity of complainants in rape cases. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 amended the law on anonymity for complainants in rape cases so that anonymity commences when an allegation of rape is made to police and not as provided in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, when a defendant is formally accused. The 1988 Act also removed the anonymity of defendants in rape cases. There were further additions made in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 and the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.

Each year, approximately 85,000 females report being a victim of the most serious offences of rape or sexual assault by penetration.

Among males the number is 12,000. Despite the figures outlined only 15% of those offences were reported to the Police. From which prosecutions were mounted against 2,910 individuals, resulting in the convictions of 1,070 rapists who committed an average of 2.3 offences each. The figures suggest that just one major sex crime in 38 leads to a conviction for the offence (Source: MOJ). What is even more disturbing, is that around 90 per cent of victims of the most serious sexual offences knew the perpetrator. Baroness Stern identified the large number of victims who knew their perpetrator in the ‘The Stern Review’ in 2010.

“Rape can occur in a range of circumstances. Those usually referred to as ‘stranger rapes’, the sort of incidents most often reported in the newspapers, where the victim and perpetrator do not know each other, are a small proportion of rape cases. Most rapes are carried out by someone the victim knows. Much rape occurs in families… Vulnerable and powerless people are often the victims of men who identify them as easy targets and take advantage of their need for attention and affection.”

On the face of it, as identified in the legislation, victims have an automatic right to anonymity when they make their initial allegation to the police. Defendants cannot rely on anonymity at this early stage. However, that is not to say that an application for anonymity of the defendant cannot be made to the court.

Recently cases of serious sexual offences have hit the headlines in light of the allegations against Jimmy Savile. Whilst the circumstances in this case may differ as the allegations came out after his death, there are other high profile cases which have been in the press more recently, namely Dave Lee Travis who has been re-arrested and questioned by police and also the likes of Michael Le Vell (Kevin Webster, Mechanic in Coronation Street), who appeared in court having been charged with 19 offences, including rape of a minor. Anonymity has not been given.

There are organisations that advocate the naming and shaming of defendants in these cases pre-conviction. Their rationale for doing so is to effectively encourage others to come forward, who may have been subjected to the same type of offences as those of the victim. The danger here, is the consideration of the defendant in that if the charges are not proved by a jury of their peers, the stigma has been attached and could lead to the serious consequences for defendants at this stage of proceedings. There is, of course, the subject of false allegations, which in a ‘Trailblazing’ report, are not as common as first thought, however it is identified that: “Where false allegations of rape and domestic violence do occur however, they are serious: reputations can be ruined and lives can be devastated as a result. Such cases will be dealt with robustly and those falsely accused should feel confident that the criminal justice system will prosecute these cases wherever there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to do so.” But does this go far enough when they have been named and shamed and the stigma is already attached? Is there smoke without a fire?

In conclusion, would there be a detriment to proceedings in serious sexual offences if anonymity was given to both parties until conclusion of the case? Is there any evidence to suggest that others who have suffered at the hands of convicted defendants would suffer a detriment or be encouraged less to come forward post conviction as to pre conviction as a result of anonymity? There is also the danger of identifying a victim by identifying the defendant, especially if the defendant is known to the victim as outlined in approximately 90% of cases. Our communities are small and people guess or attach the label. How far do we go to protect the victim and the stigmatised defendant? There is a fine balance to make, but an important balance nonetheless. There is a clear argument for anonymity for both parties until the conclusion of cases of serious sexual offences, as both parties could have their reputations put through the mill if identified too early in proceedings and lives could be ruined both ways.

Additional info:
To share your thoughts on this, maybe you could get involved in the consultation, keep an eye on the CPS website or JUSTICE website, where a consultation may no doubt be launched in the very near future covering serious sexual offences from reporting through to conviction. Keir Starmer QC DPP has already identified the following:

• A clearing of the decks in relation to policy and guidance. All existing policy will be decommissioned, with one overarching and agreed approach to investigation and prosecution of sexual offences to be applicable in all police forces and agreed by the CPS. The CPS will also draft new guidance to ensure consistent best practice, which will be open to public consultation.
• Training will ensure there is no gap between policy and practice. The training will be hands on and provide practical advice to police and prosecutors about when a complainant can and should be told about other complaints, among other things.
• To propose the formation of a national “scoping panel”, which will review complaints made in the past which were not pursued by police and prosecutors, if requested.
Mr Starmer said: “There is an urgent need for an informed national debate about the proper approach to the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences”. Furthermore, “that debate needs to extend well beyond the CPS and the police. Above all, a national consensus needs to be reached on the issues.”

(C) Andrew Perriman, 2013

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One thought on “Anonymity in serious sexual offences…time to change?

  1. Pingback: Criminal Justice Act 1988

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