Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions has said in the Times today that prosecutors are already being told not to confirm or deny a suspect's identity before a decision had been made on charging them. Apparently the College of Policing has launched a consultation on revising guidelines on naming suspects who had been arrested or who were under investigation. Practice varies between forces.
In the same report, Alison Saunders also voiced concerns about the case of Sir Cliff Richard, who is suing the BBC for reporting on his home by the police. Sir Cliff was eventually told that no charges would be brought against him.
Recently, certain high profile accusations have created a groundswell of calls for anonymity. That groundswell is further driven by the "Saville" effect, which is the increase in prosecutions for sexual abuse, and in particular prosecutions against celebrities and high profile figures. Pressure is building for a change in the law.
The problem is not restricted to celebrities and high profile figures. On the 2nd August, the Times reported on the case of a geography teacher, Kato Harris who had been cleared of rape allegations made by a 14 year old school girl. Mr Harris was teaching at a private all-girl school in Camden, London when the accusations were made.
The jury took just 26 minutes to find him innocent. Harris was said to have been ruined by his legal costs.
The case of Sir Cliff Richard, and that of Mr Harris are just two of many high profile claims that are said to result in irreversible "reputational damage".
Sir Brian Leveson called for anonymity for suspects in his report in 2012 on press standards, as did the Common home affairs committee of MP's last year. However the Law Commission and the government's law reform advisers have argued that those who are arrested should generally be named, subject to safeguards.
Some argue that Parliament's decision to remove anonymity from Defendants in sexual abuse cases is "nonsensical". Claire Foges, writing in the Times said :-
"With so many innocent men having their reputations ruined, it's time we went back to a system of automatic immunity."
The Times has a leading article which says that the solution to the problem is not more anonymity in the court. Rather the police and prosecutors should "raise their game" by which they mean that they should be sifting out allegations that are weak. This is a great deal easier than it sounds, but I think it is right.
My own view is that vulnerable people need encouragement to come forward after suffering a sex attack. The publication of Defendants' details has proved crucial in giving victims the confidence to seek justice. The media coverage of Jimmy Saville's crimes is just one example of people coming forward many years after the event. It also highlighted the failures of corporations such as the BBC who missed chances to stop the attacks.
I would argue that the only thing that anonymising the accused would achieve is a reduction in the number of real victims coming forward.
Firstly, vulnerable people need encouragement to come forward after suffering an attack. Defendants' identities have been publicised for decades and this has proved highly successful in in giving victims the confidence to seek justice. For instance, the media coverage of the crimes of Jimmy Saville resulted in a huge number of people coming forward. It also highlighted the errors of corporations like the BBC for missed chances to stop attacks. This would suggest that the law is effective regardless of time frames. The DPS readily acknowledge the importance of public scrutiny and they also acknowledge that more people are coming forward because of the "Saville" effect. Alison Saunders also said:- "If someone makes serious allegations we have got to investigate it...Sometimes you don't know what the evidence is until you do that. It is very easy with hindsight to say 'you should not prosecute or bring charges - it must all been a lie - how could you have done it?'"
Furthermore, giving anonymity to Defendants is a restriction of public knowledge, which is likely to face backlash. Those who call for the names of defendants to be withheld are mainly concerned about the stigma that comes with being accused. However this assumes that most people believe that a person, who is found innocent, is still guilty. I do not believe that this is the case. There are always "trolls" on the internet that will make unfounded allegations against people, but how many people actually believe them?
Finally, if the identities of those accused of sex crimes are withheld, then we may see a "domino effect" whereby there are then calls for people accused of other crimes to have anonymity. One of the central purposes of the criminal justice system is to act as a deterrent. That deterrent should not be restricted simply to the risk of conviction and punishment, but the whole process of prosecution.
Malcolm Johnson, Specialist Child Abuse Lawyer