CONSERVATIVE MP and former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis has called for a review into the prosecution of sexual offences, following the acquittal of fellow Tory MP Nigel Evans. Davis argued that the Crown Prosecution Service should not be permitted to ‘put together a large number of lesser, subsidiary cases, in order to reinforce one serious case.’ His concerns are echoed by former Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt, who has suggested defendants in sexual offence cases should be granted anonymity – just as victims are – until the point of charge.
On each occasion that a celebrity or high-profile individual is acquitted following charges of sexual assault (in the last year alone we have seen Coronation Street actors Michael Le Vell and William Roache walk free, as well as numerous others involved in the Met’s Operation Yewtree investigation) we hear cries of injustice. In February last year Maura McGowan QC, chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, said defendants should receive the same right to anonymity as complainants, to avoid the ‘stigma’ attached to sexual allegations.
It’s not a new argument: in 1976 rape defendants were granted anonymity, but the protection was removed in 1988 and has never been reinstated, despite plans appearing in the 2010 Coalition agreement. Supporters argue the shame of a sexual assault allegation sticks forever – there’s no smoke without fire, after all – and that many would rather be falsely accused of murder than of groping a teenage girl in a bar.
But to turn the focus onto the defendant in a rape case is to switch it away from the person that matters: the victim. Granting anonymity to a defendant in a sexual assault case empowers an alleged offender at the very point at which we should instead be enabling the complainant to speak out. More than 70% of rapes already go unreported, and out of those which make it as far as a report, so many cases hinge on the issue of consent, that few result in a charge, let alone a conviction. It is hard enough to encourage victims of sexual assaults – both men and women – to come forward and give evidence in court, without giving their attackers additional protection.
Although itself open to misuse, the release of a defendant’s name into the public domain serves a further purpose: it encourages other victims to come forward. When an offender has systematically abused victims over a period of time, such publicity serves as an important tool. For a victim who has felt entirely alone, and who believes their lone voice would never be heard, learning they are one of several others can give them confidence to come forward. Furthermore, and arguably of even greater importance, it can remove the long-held belief that what happened was their own fault.
There is no call for defendants in other trials to be granted anonymity. No argument that burglars, robbers or vandals be protected against the possibility of false accusation. So why should sexual assault defendants be treated any differently? Either we have confidence in our justice system or we don’t: we can’t cherry-pick offences to wrap in cotton wool.
Clare Mackintosh is a freelance feature-writer, columnist and crime novelist, and a former Police Inspector. Follow her on Twitter @claremackint0sh or read her blog at www.claremackintosh.com/blog