Anonymity for rape suspects: sudden, surprising and strange

by Carl Gardner on May 20, 2010

The coalition’s “Programme for Government” published today contains at least one major surprise. In section 20 of the document relating to justice policy, on page 24, it says

We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.

This is a controversial policy, and one I’m not sure is right. It’s true of course that a man’s life can be ruined by an allegation of rape, even if he’s acquitted in the end. Maybe that’s a worse problem than it is for those acquitted on other charges because of the sensational interest there can be in rape cases. But there’s a strong case against the change. I doubt very much that anonymity will much affect women’s likelihood to report rape cases overall, or the conviction rate. What it will do though is reduce the chance of publicity about one rape case triggering reports from women that the man accused attacked them in the past, and identifications by women who have reported a rape, but believe they now recognise their attacker having seen him in connection with another case.

The law of rape is a fraught area. The presumption of innocence must not simply be thrown out of the window in pursuit of convictions at all cost; but nor should wrong-headed extensions of the scope of the presumption be used as a barrier to investigating rape cases. The presumption of innocence does not require anonymity, and I’m not persuaded we should grant it.

What’s more extraordinary than the policy itself, though, is the fact that it’s been announced out of the blue as a definite commitment today, never having been mentioned in either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat manifestoes. Where’s this suddenly come from? It is a hobby horse of one of the new Home Office or justice ministers?

This coalition will need watching. Are we going to have five years of unpredictable policy shifts like this?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James Medhurst May 20, 2010 at 19:46

This is interesting. Dealing with the particular first, I find some of your arguments for not granting rape defendants anonymity to be persuasive and I do worry that, in an area where conviction rates are already too low, the protection for suspects is being raised higher than for other offences.

Moving on to the general however, I have no objection to the adoption of policies not in either manifesto. No government has ever considered itself bound by its manifesto and there are many circumstances in which it would simply be impossible. The defining issue of the 2001-2005 Parliament was Iraq but none of the parties set out their position during the 2001 election, four months before 9/11. I even remember Bush at the presidential debate in 2000 saying that he intended to have a non-interventionist foreign policy.

I think this has happened because parties are themselves coalitions and so, although there are many civil libertarians among the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, they have been inhibited by other elements within their parties from fully expressing themselves. In coalition, however, their hand has been strengthened. They are now able to pursue an agenda that many people want, rightly or wrongly, but it has never been possible to vote for.
.-= James Medhurst´s last blog ..British Airways strike injunction =-.

2 Geeklawyer May 20, 2010 at 20:17

Although one hears reports of one rape accusation leading to follow accusations I wonder how widespread it really is? How likely is a rapist who is accused of extra rapes acquitted of the initial one only to be snagged by subsequent ones? What is the statistical evidence on that?

Rape is one of those heinous accusations that leads to accusations that linger, even after acquittal: “No smoke without fire”. The damage to both accuser and accused demands symmetry. How many false accusers have escaped justice and caused improper convictions because of the cloak of anonymity? It cuts both ways.
.-= Geeklawyer´s last blog ..Parliament: the Nation decides =-.

3 botogol May 20, 2010 at 23:01

this seems very odd to me, and not thought through.
if a woman is raped… and she confides in a friend, or her mother – is she committing an offense by making a named allegation?

4 ObiterJ May 21, 2010 at 09:54

I am not at all sure which way this ought to go. Defendants used to have anonymity (in the period 1976-1988). There ought to be a thorough look at the topic to determine whether a change to the law is needed and, if so, what form it should take.

Interestingly, it seems that William Hague is to set up an inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture. No inquiry is mentioned in any of the manifestos or in the Coalition Agreement though the latter states that – “We will never codone the use of torture”. Also, following the recent Court of Appeal judgment in Al Rawi it is being said that the new government is keen to settle the various claims in this area.
.-= ObiterJ´s last blog ..Governmental News and Reviews but not all will be plain sailing =-.

5 Carl Gardner May 21, 2010 at 10:23

James, my reply to your Iraq point is that, in summer 2001, neither 9/11 nor the Iraq war were foreseeable; Labour could hardly have been expected to to flag them up in their manifesto. This is different. It was passed as LibDem policy in 2006 (I had to dig on the internet last night to find that out) but not mentioned in either manifesto, so was not discussed at the election. Now, only two weeks later, it pops up as a definite commitment – no reviews or anything – without anything at all having changed.

Geek, my reply on the statistics is that, if we have anonymity, we’ll never know whether someone acquitted of one rape might have been identified by the victim of another attack.

6 Chuck Unsworth May 23, 2010 at 07:52

Well Carl, what’s this ‘strong case’ you speak of? Why is Rape to be dealt with differently under law? Would you advocate that GBH victims should not be identified?

Why is your assumption that any man accused of Rape is inevitably to be assumed a serial rapist – therefore should not be given the same rights as his accuser? Would the same thinking apply in the case of the local Hard Man who regularly assaults people?

I know that Helena Kennedy takes the same line as you – but she, too, doesn’t seem to put up this ‘case’. She merely deploys an emotional argument. Or do we now believe that emotion must replace logic?

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