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?