[Go here for the first part of this extended post…]
A summary of the debate (continued)
Since 1981 it has been the law in the Republic of Ireland that defendants in rape  trials cannot be identified pre-conviction. There is a provision  – which deals with Thornberry’s claim about the availability of defence witnesses – for the defence to apply to the court to have defendant anonymity lifted in order to induce potential witnesses to come forward.
There are those who argue, post-Clifford, that this provision is not in the public interest. But it has been on the Irish statute book for 33 years. Should England and Wales have a similar provision, but for a rather wider range of sexual offences?
As we pointed out in our last post, in 2013 fully 32% of those charged in England and Wales for rape, child sex abuse, indecent assault and other types of sexual offending were not convicted or cautioned.
10,365 sexual offences were proceeded against in 2013. 5,659 people were found guilty. 1,349 people were cautioned. This means that 3,357 people (just over 32%) were not convicted and retain, in law, their innocence. Nearly 3,500 people, in one year alone, risked being publicly identified with the slur and stigma of sexual offending and carrying that burden into the rest of their lives.
Note that this is despite the relaxation of the law since the 1990s in terms of corroboration and hearsay. The conviction rate in 2013 for this kind of offence was truly lamentable. It confirms our belief that the Crown Prosecution Service does not weed out enough cases before the charging stage.
Once a sexual complaint is made, and as long as the complainant sticks to his or her complaint, the likelihood is that the matter will proceed to charge and to trial. If there are internal inconsistencies in the complainant’s evidence, some attempt will be made by CPS and police to close up those holes. But the inconsistencies – unless they make it crystal clear that the complainant was fabricating and that no offence could have taken place – will not usually lead to a decision not to prosecute. This is because the CPS prefers to have such matters tested by the court, rather than take such decisions itself. It is politically more expedient, in the current climate, to be criticized for obtaining too few convictions than to be criticized for being ‘soft’ on sexual offending.
To see how the CPS’s sometimes cavalier attitude towards charging and proceeding to trial can work out on the ground, let’s look at the prosecution of Nigel Evans, former deputy speaker of the House of Commons. This was a high-profile case. A prosecution was mounted even though complainants said in court that they did not consider themselves victims of any criminal offence, nor had they wanted to complain to police. Some of the witnesses “suggested they felt pressured by police into appearing as alleged victims in the high-profile trial.”
There was another complainant who alleged rape against Evans, thought the facts were strongly disputed around the issue of consent. The prosecution aim here was clearly to use the weaker allegations to bolster the rather stronger one, a technique known as “bundling”.
Nigel Evans was acquitted on all counts. He is having difficulty recouping his £130,000 legal defence costs. He is likely to carry the effect of these failed proceedings publicly for many years. Personal details of his personal life have been under the public gaze as a result.
So the question ought to be, not “why should there be pre-conviction defendant anonymity in the these cases?”, but “why should there not be?”. The government, CPS and police cannot have it both ways. If they insist for reasons of political expediency on charging people a third of whom they know will probably be acquitted, then the case for defendant anonymity is overwhelming.
Michelle Healey argues at Halbury’s Law Exchange that:-
… those accused of sexual offences ought not to be named unless they are charged. This would offer a person who is investigated but then exonerated the chance to move forward with their life without negative publicity. It would also ensure that if the CPS were making a charging decision they would look only at the offence charged and assess the weight of the evidence to see whether there is a reasonable prospect of success, rather than looking at numerous allegations and allowing potentially weaker allegations to be charged in order to shore up a conviction on potentially stronger cases… Once charged then it is right and proper that a suspect be named, as they would be in any other criminal case.
Healey is working along the right lines, but she does not go far enough. If defendant anonymity is lifted post-charge and pre-conviction, untold damage can still be done where there is an eventual acquittal, as there was in 32% of cases in 2013. Defendant anonymity in sexual offence cases should be in place from the moment of original complaint until the moment of conviction.