The chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, Maura McGowan QC, has recently spoken out in favour of granting anonymity to those accused of sexual offences. The reasoning behind this proposal is that the perceived stigma of sexual offence is such that, even if the person is eventually found not guilty, they will always be tainted by the accusation.
Under the current regulations, whilst anonymity is granted automatically to victims of sexual offences unless they choose to waive it, it is not granted to those accused. This is not the first time that the granting of anonymity to defendants in sexual offences trials has been proposed: anonymity was granted in the 1970s and subsequently repealed in the 1980s. Moreover, the current coalition government had proposed to reinstate it as recently as 2010. While I understand some of the reasoning behind this proposal, the prospect of it being realised makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons.
Sexual offences are quite rightly met with revulsion by most people. They undoubtedly carry a stigma and I understand the concern about false accusations: in my work with children, I have attended numerous safeguarding courses in which the importance of protecting yourself from false accusations is emphasised. However, stigma is not enough to justify anonymity; other crimes, such as violent crime and murder, also have sizeable stigmas associated with them, and crimes involving children surely carry the largest stigma of all. Why, then, should only those accused of sexual offences be relieved of it?
It is this singling out which worries me. A majority of those who report sexual offences are women, and it seems to me that this move points towards wider issues to do with societal attitudes towards women and the way sexual offences are handled. It strikes me that the granting of anonymity to those accused of sexual offences is predicated, at least in part, on the myth that women are more likely to falsely report crimes, especially sexual assaults. The notion that women purposely fabricate accusations when it suits them is but one of a number misogynistic beliefs internalised by society at large. Home Office research suggests that false accusations of rape make up only 3% of rapes reported, equivalent to those in any other types of crime. Granting anonymity to those accused of rape and other sexual offences surely does nothing more than perpetuate the fallacy that women ‘cry rape’.
There are many other reasons as to why transparency in judiciary proceedings and the naming of the accused is beneficial. The victims of sexual offences are often ashamed of their ordeal and therefore unlikely to come forward; only 15% report the crime to police. Publishing details of the accused often encourages other victims to come forward and increases the likelihood of a successful conviction. An example of this would be the recent Jimmy Savile affair, in which the release of the accused’s name brought forth other victims and immeasurably strengthened the case against Savile. Statistically speaking, one’s chances of being falsely accused are low enough to be trumped by the overwhelming need for judicial transparency.
Fundamentally, this issue is a classic case of misplaced priorities on the part of the British government, which shows a fundamental inadequacy in the way it deals with sexual offences. After the recent shocking gang rape in New Delhi, British newspapers exploded with discussions on societal attitudes towards women in India. However, the press have often hypocritically failed to highlight the fact that the conviction rate in India for sexual offences, albeit low, is still four times that of the UK.
The focus in the UK should remain on the victims of these offences and not on those accused The chair of the Bar Council, the government and the police would do better to focus on improving the ways victims are dealt with rather than tinkering around with the way those accused are handled.