Tuesday, 01 December 2015

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Should those accused of rape have the right to anonymity?

This week, the new Government outlined its programme for the next five years. Among the expected commitments on debt, banking and immigration was a surprise pledge that has sparked fury among women’s groups.

Abigail Finnegan photo
Abigail Finnegan

Far from being progress, some say it will bring a return to the dark ages.

Rape support charities and feminist groups have lashed out at the proposal to extend anonymity to rape defendants. They say it will reinforce public perceptions that women who report rape are liars, vindictive or fantasists.

CPS Cumbria declined to comment on the proposed reform.

But feelings run high for Abigail Finnegan, founder of sexual abuse and rape support charity Safety Net, which operates in Carlisle and now in Workington.

She believes a change in the law would be “absurd” and would undo more than 30 years of progress.

“In encouraging rape victims to come forward we’ve done a lot of work under the last Government.

“The system now is that the victim is believed when they report a rape and the process begins. This will be shot to pieces.

“Already people will have read about these proposals and it will have put them off reporting. It will already have had an impact.”

Open justice is held as one of the fundamental principles of our judicial system – the public have a right to know who is being prosecuted in their name.

However, it has long been held that vulnerable victims – complainants of sexual offences and rape and any defendants under 18 – should be protected.

From 1976, victims in rape cases have been granted anonymity under the Sexual Offences Act. For 12 years the same law provided anonymity for defendants.

But this was abolished by the 1988 Criminal Justice Act after judges told ministers this ran against the interests of open justice and stifled police appeals for witnesses to rape.

It is argued the issue is one of human rights, of equality. Why should the complainant of rape be granted anonymity, but the accused be named before he or she is convicted?

A barrister practising in the North West told the News & Star: “The reform is a good idea – it’s something that needs to be considered carefully.

“I’m all for anonymity for victims, but it’s an interesting area in relation to defendants – they should remain anonymous until conviction.

“It’s because of adverse publicity. The feeling of members of the public is that these are very emotive cases. There is a tendency for the public to think there’s no smoke without fire.

“Sex cases are very sensitive. If the complainant is protected, which I think is right, I believe the defendant should be.

“If the complainant knows she is going to be treated fairly by the justice system, which she would be, I do not see how the reform could have an effect on the jury. Juries are very sensible beings.”

Yet there are those who believe the proposal could result in a lack of transparency in our justice system. They believe a dangerous precedent could be set for the identity of all those accused of serious crimes to be protected.

Where is the line between what the public feel to be an abhorrent crime and what may be considered minor?

Acting leader of the opposition, Harriet Harman, spoke in parliament yesterday urging the government to rethink the reforms.

She said: “[Labour] have made progress on bringing rapists to justice, I urge them [the coalition] not to turn back the clocks.”

It is a view that Abigail shares. Since she launched Safety Net six years ago, more than 500 victims of rape and sexual abuse have passed through the doors. This past year has seen 115 women and children referred for support.

About 15 per cent came to seek help after becoming victims of rape – and only a third had reported the rape to police.

According to Cumbria Constabulary figures, there were 112 recorded rape offences in Cumbria in the last financial year.

Thirty of these resulted in prosecutions and 69 per cent of cases which go to court result in conviction.

Superintendent Cath Thundercloud, said: “We have dedicated teams of Specialist Trained Officers to investigate rape and sexual assault offences.

“We want all victims to have the confidence to report their crime to us so we can work to support them and bring offenders to justice.

“It is reassuring that conviction rates in Cumbria are high and we are working closely with our partner agencies in CPS, health and the court system, as well as all the third sector support agencies, to improve conviction rates and victim care even further.”

Yet campaigners believe this reform could damage conviction rates, leading juries to lean towards defendants.

On the other side of the coin, supporters claim lives and reputations have been destroyed by false accusations of rape with acquitted defendants left tarred in the eyes of their communities forever.

They say the reforms, if passed by parliament, would mean the judicial process could go about its business without rumours, speculation and gossip about defendants brought to trial.

But critics believe blanket anonymity could actually hamper police investigations. And that public trust in the judicial system can only exist if transparency is upheld.

The case of London black cab driver John Worboys has been cited. Now thought to be Britain’s most prolific rapist, Worboys was convicted in March 2009 of 19 charges of drugging and sexually assaulting 12 female passengers.

A police appeal followed his arrest and 75 more women came forward to tell Met officers they thought Worboys, 51, had attacked them too.

This is particularly pertinent for Abigail who believes the vast majority of rapists strike more than once.

“People think they are the only one – without a doubt they are not. Quite often victims will see something in the paper and say ‘that’s the person who did that to me too’.

“Rape is secretive, it is done with psychological manipulation of victims and a lot of this is done so the victim does not come forward and talk.

“We need to get this in the perspective of what actually happens – for someone who has been raped, the next 48 hours is hell. They are taken back to relive it over and again, they are examined and taken back to the crime scene. It is harrowing.”

Some people charged with rape are released on bail, often back into the communities where their alleged victims live.

Abigail points out that it can take several months after the charge before a case is brought to trial.

“I understand we should not be branding people – innocent until proven guilty. However, women crying rape and children making up these claims is very rare.”

The Stern report on rape complaints, commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and published earlier this year, recommended independent research into false rape reporting rates. It did not make any recommendation on anonymity for defendants.

Despite the call for further investigation, no findings have as yet been published. But the most recent research suggests that false reports of rape are no higher than for any other crime.

Yet for those who are falsely accused, the toll can be devastating.

Jade Goody’s widower Jack Tweed said he contemplated suicide after being arrested on rape charges, for which he was later cleared.

He was accused of rape last September and later cleared of all charges at Snaresbrook crown court in East London.

Yet the club promoter said earlier this month that the stigma of being branded a rapist made him feel so low that “I just wanted to end my life”.

Carlisle legal case worker John Corson told the News & Star his own personal view, not that of law firm Wragg Mark-Bell. “You are innocent until proven guilty. There have been a number of cases over the years where complainants have been shown to have made false claims.

“Unfortunately in a lot of people’s minds, mud does stick, especially in the month leading to the trial.

“Wrongful claims can ruin a person’s life even if they are acquitted. And why should that be?

“[Anonymity] is a matter best left to the judge to decide in individual cases.”

Though national charity, Rape Crisis, says the long term effects of sexual violence and abuse for victims include post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, depression, social phobia, substance abuse, eating disorders, self harm and suicide.

Abigail said: “I’ve seen people who have lost loved ones through murder. Someone who has been a victim of rape loses themselves and their families lose them too.”

Coming forward to seek support from agencies is essential to rape victims’ eventual recovery.

Abigail claims society’s enduring suspicion of women who report rape, particularly if alcohol is in the mix, means many victims are too afraid to speak out.

“You’re out on a Friday night with a few girlfriends. You’re 17, dolled up to the nines. You have seven or eight drinks and you’re under age.

“You end up with someone forcing themselves on you, but you left that club with them.

“You thought you were going to have a snog, because you’re 17 and that would be lovely.

“The number of people who lose their virginity to rape is unbelievable – the shame is unbelievable.

“If you are 17 and are not allowed to wear short skirts, or drink or go to town, you already feel you were in the wrong.

“I want to see this reform thrown away. Burned.

“I know this is about the rights of the individual. But it should not be at the expense of the victims.”

To access Safety Net, visit www.safetynet-carlisle.org.uk or call 01228 515 859 for more information.

Have your say

My Huspand was wrongly accused of rape by a women from his work, she wrecked all our lifes, my huspand's, my baby girl and mine. We have been treated like outcasts because of this false claim, and even after he was cleared, the effects are still here. My huspand was the victim in this case and if the law allowed anonymity until found guilty, we would have been saved all this heartache. Not everyone accused is guilty, it is a sad thing that people would make up this sort of lie, but it does happen. On another note this will effect us as a family for a long time yet, it will remain on the police computer for years to come and will effect my huspand in any future job applications he may wish to make.

Posted by Diane on 13 June 2010 at 08:11


All accused and doing the accusing, should have anonymity, even after the court case has been settled. Publicly naming and shaming people, doesn't work, and only instigates harassment and vigilantism.


Posted by Sex Offender Issues on 27 May 2010 at 21:25

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