Anonymity for Rape Suspects?

By Kirstin Fairnie

The head of the bar council of England and Wales, Maura McGowan QC, has said in an interview on the Stephen Nolan show that she thinks there is a case to be made for granting rape suspects anonymity.

Putting aside my surprise that the headlines have been filled by comments made on the sports channel BBC 5 live, rather than one of the more usual suspects like the Today programme or the Andrew Marr show, I am relieved to hear that someone has finally come out in support of one of the key tenets of our justice system- ‘innocent until proven guilty’. And what’s more, it’s a woman who’s risking being accused of betraying her sex by hyper-feminists who confuse rape with ‘feminist issues’. Disappointingly however, she has qualified her call by claiming that the scandalous nature of rape cases makes it particularly important that suspects should be granted anonymity. I completely disagree that accusations of rape are any more poisonous to a person’s reputation than other criminal allegations.

At first it seems obvious that defendants ought to be anonymous, since the ramifications of criminal allegations on a defendant’s life are so far-reaching that it is hard to justify making them public before they have been proven. There seems to be something in the human psyche that makes it very difficult to maintain a neutral attitude towards someone who has been accused of a crime, even before we’ve heard the evidence against them. ‘No smoke without fire’ type attitudes mean that even people who have cleared their names in court are still stigmatised in society. In fact, this probably makes them more likely to turn to a life of crime: if the strain of legal proceedings leads to you losing your family and then lose your job (or contract with Nike, like Oscar Pistorius) and then you cannot get another job because of your inaccurate reputation, it’s easy to see how disaffected you would become. If you can’t afford to keep up payments on your mortgage, you might end up homeless. Worse, you might turn to fraud or theft to make money, since society hates you anyway, so it doesn’t seem like your reputation could get any worse.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye. Slander laws are designed to prevent accusations reaching court without any evidence on which to build a case, so it ought to be unlikely that a completely bogus claim reaches court. The high costs of legal proceedings ensure that most plaintiffs cannot afford to bring spurious cases to court. So usually, the plaintiff at least believes that he or she has been the victim of a crime. If defendants are protected by anonymity, plaintiffs might feel that their accusations are not really believed. This might discourage victims from coming forward, and would allow criminals to get away scot-free. In cases involving repeat offenders, if only one victim feels confident enough in the justice system to make legal accusations, this will diminish the scale of the defendant’s crimes. The Jimmy Saville case has shown how naming a defendant can encourage other victims to come forward once they know that they will be believed. This is the case made by the charity Rape Crisis. However, I don’t really think this argument makes sense. If a defendant is named once he or she has been proven guilty, then surely other victims would be prepared to come forward and testify against them? There is no reason why a stronger punishment could not be given to a convicted criminal if he or she is later found guilty of multiple crimes.

We need to get to a position where victims trust the justice system enough to know that they will be believed, and that if they tell the truth they will win in court, even if their defendant is anonymous. This would ultimately lead to victims of crime coming forward, not naming and shaming before both defendant and plaintiff have had the opportunity to make their case in court.

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