Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Photo by Chris Beckett

Photo by Chris Beckett

So let’s imagine you’re sitting in your home watching TV one night. There’s a knock on the door and when you open it, the police are standing on your doorstep. You’ve been accused of doing something unsavoury, I don’t know, let’s imagine you’ve been accused of waving your knob at schoolgirls. The police have several witnesses who say you did it; even the police say they’re positive you’re guilty. You’re bang to rights, right?

Except you didn’t do it.

You’re arrested and charged, then the local paper picks up the story. Suddenly, you’re that ‘Local Man Charged With Sex Offence‘. Because, of course, if you’ve been arrested and charged by definition you’re guilty. Even people who know you think ‘no smoke without fire’ because that’s what everyone not in possession of the full story and your knowledge you didn’t do it thinks. But the moment it appeared in the paper, your name is irrevocably linked to that accusation. Even if the charges are eventually dropped or you’re acquitted, your may have lost your job, your partner, access to your children and your neighbours think you’re a dodgy perv.

Following the Jimmy Savile debacle and the recent high-profile arrests of a variety of men accused of sex offences, there’s been a lot of discussion about the naming of defendants prior to conviction. In fact, until 1988, rape suspects were given anonymity under the 1976 Sexual Offences Act. Bar Council chairwoman Maura McGowan QC said in this Independent article in February that the stigma of sex offence allegations means that a defendant should stay anonymous until they’re actually convicted.

It’s worth pointing out as well what appears to be some conflict over the point at which defendants should lose their anonymity – some seem to say when the suspect being charged, while others say when they’re convicted. Being charged with a crime is not the same as being convicted (though people seem to believe otherwise). In fact, the excellent A Barrister’s Wife blog demonstrates pretty clearly that being innocent is no barrier to being charged. Two cases on the blog, the paedophile and the child pornographer are particularly note-worthy – both involved failings by the police and the CPS, a climate of paranoia over sex crimes (particularly where children are involved) and could have led to the ruin of the defendants lives, not to mention potential threats to their safety, if their names were made public. The ‘no smoke without fire’ myth is also one which A Barrister’s Wife examines and how proposed changes to Legal Aid could lead to defendants being pushed to plead guilty even when they’re not.

In 2010, the coalition government put forward proposals to grant anonymity to rape suspects, but the plans were later abandoned after criticism from women’s groups and Justice Minister Crispin Blunt’s belief that it would prevent other victims coming forward. There’s obviously a strong case for this argument – the publicity surrounding the Savile investigation prompted more victims to go to the police. Subsequent investigations have found that the police covered up allegations over a long period of time which, had they been made public, could have prevented further attacks. Campaigners also believe that keeping the accused anonymous implies that the victim is not believed.

But is naming a defendant in the hope that it will prompt other victims to speak out a good enough reason to lay waste to their life and those of their family? Is it even a reliable way to seek out further victims? The Savile case made national headlines. The guy accused of flashing at schoolgirls will only make the local paper. Yes, it could be just enough to lead to further crimes being uncovered (assuming there are any in the first place), but since it’s the police’s actual day job to, y’know, investigate a crime, it’s not unreasonable to think that they would turn up further offences during their investigation. This argument also assumes a suspect is guilty until they’re proved otherwise – which is against the basic tenet of the legal rights of the accused.

Defendant anonymity has a lot of public support – a ComRes survey for The Independent actually found that more than three quarters of respondents believed anonymity should be granted. That’s not to say that sheer numbers should swing the argument but can that 76% really be accused of perpetuating victim-blaming or myths about false reporting?

People opposed to granting anonymity for defendants say that it amounts to protecting the suspect and I can see the validity of that argument, I really can. But it also protects defendants who are simply not guilty in the first place.

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