Comment: Anonymity for rape defendants is a tired argument that’s had its day

By Holly Dustin

There are some debates which are so clichéd and dog-eared they should really be left in peace until there's something new to say. So it is with the regular call for anonymity for defendants accused of rape. It came most recently from the chair of the Bar Council, Maura McGowan QC, who has reportedly said that men accused of sexual crimes should be granted anonymity until conviction "because they carry such stigma with them".

It is, quite clearly, horrendous to be accused of a crime you did not commit. This goes for murder, knife crime, child neglect and any number of other serious offences but you don't hear calls for the principle of open justice to be cast aside in these cases.

A quick glance at media coverage of this debate provides a clue as to why sexual offences are singled out; at root there is usually the myth that there are a large number of false allegations in rape cases (the 'women cry rape' theme). So it's important to inject a few facts into the debate and to spell out that there is no evidence of higher numbers of false allegations in rape than for other crimes – the figure is estimated to be around four per cent.

In fact, the real problem with the justice system is that most survivors (recent figures show up to 85%) don't report what's happened to them, partly because of prejudicial reporting in the media and thinking they will not be believed. Once a rape is reported to the police there is little chance of conviction and there have been numerous efforts to improve the response by the police, Crown Prosecution System and courts.

But problems remain throughout the criminal justice system and prejudicial attitudes towards women pervade jurors' rooms, as they do the rest of society, making it difficult to secure convictions if a case reaches court. With 85,000 rape victims every year and a tiny proportion of convictions, the injustice begins to look more like it is to survivors of rape.

In fact, there are good reasons why it is important to publicise the defendant's name in rape cases. Sex offenders are often repeat offenders with multiple victims and so publicity can encourage more survivors to come forward, as happened so overwhelmingly in the case of Jimmy Savile, but also the cases of Kirk Reid and John Worboys.

The coalition government has already considered, and rejected, changing the law to give anonymity to defendants in rape cases because they found no evidence to support such a change. It would be interesting to know what the Bar Council thinks has changed.

Moreover, in the face of ongoing and highly distressing abuse scandals, not least the recent death of Frances Andrade, it seems an extraordinary moment to be calling for such an unevidenced myth-driven policy that can only discourage more abuse victims from coming forward.

Wouldn't we be better to focus the debate on how we can bring perpetrators of rape and sexual violence to account more effectively, and ensure that there is properly resourced specialist support for every survivor no matter whether she was abused as a child or assaulted more recently?  Hasn't this tired old debate had its day?

Holly Dustin is director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition.

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