Durham student rape acquittal sparks talk of criminal law reform

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By Katie King on

Should we bring back anonymity for accused rapists?


The law on the anonymity of defendants has come under scrutiny once again, after a Durham Uni student’s life was “devastated” by false rape allegations.

This week, 21 year-old Louis Richardson, a Durham history undergrad and former head of the university’s debating society, was cleared of rape and sexual assault.

Richardson was accused of raping a woman when she was “crazy drunk”, and sexually assaulting another at a student party.

The accused firmly denied the charges. He admitted having had consensual sex with his ‘victim’, and claimed that her boyfriend encouraged her to make up the complaint.

Philippa McAtasney QC of Furnival Chambers, defending Richardson, described his alleged rape victim as:

[A] highly manipulative, dishonest, dangerous young woman.

On Tuesday, Richardson was acquitted at Durham Crown Court by a jury that took just over two hours to reach a verdict.

Being falsely accused of rape is no doubt rare, but these allegations can have a serious, long-term impact on the suspect.

Though cleared of all offences, the bright student’s life has reportedly been “devastated” by these allegations. A statement released on behalf of the Richardsons described the experience as “absolute hell for the whole family.”

Debate is stirring — as it often does after a case like this — about whether anonymity should be granted to defendants, at least in cases of a sensitive subject matter.

Currently, victims of sexual offences are granted full anonymity, but the same protection is not available to suspected offenders. This has not always been the case — in the 1970s anonymity was introduced for accused rapists, but this was later repealed in 1988 for fear that victims were being discouraged from coming forward.

There is an indisputable level of support for the pre-1988 rules to be reinstated, or at least reconsidered.

Nigel Evans — leading Conservative MP and former deputy speaker — has pushed for a change in the law of sexual offence trials. As someone who himself was cleared of rape in 2014, Evans has serious doubts about whether Richardson’s case should have ever reached the courtroom, let alone hit the press. He said:

We can’t know everything that the jury knew but they took less than three hours on the basis of the evidence. It begs the question: why did this case ever go to court?

He continued:

After these kinds of case, [the Crown Prosecution Service] and the police go into defensive mode. I understand where they are coming from, but we do need to look again at why this went to trial. Did they get it wrong?

And he’s not alone. Anonymous legal blogger the Secret Barrister has described himself as “very much in favour” of keeping the identity of accused sexual perpetrators hidden. He told us:

Affording anonymity until conviction would not only protect the reputations of the acquitted, but would ensure that prosecutorial decisions can be taken without consideration of popular opinion or media or political pressure.

So, given this undeniable raft of support, is a change in the law around the corner?

Maybe, but maybe not.

Mark Fenhalls QC, the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, has spoken out about the need to review the current legislation. He told The Times‘ law newsletter The Brief:

There is an argument, at least, that anonymity should be looked at.

However, it’s not all black and white. There is a strong argument that granting anonymity may compromise the openness of the criminal justice system, and the job of the legislator is to get this balancing act right.

These concerns are echoed by Felicity Gerry QC, who herself thinks that reform would be detrimental. When Legal Cheek spoke to the criminal barrister, she told us:

Reports of the trial tend to suggest that [Richardson] was well represented and that he took the opportunity to give evidence. That is what trials are for. Better to have a public conviction or acquittal than gossip and rumour.

But is there a middle way?

Max Hardy, a criminal barrister at 9 Bedford Row, seems to think so. Describing anonymity of suspects as “a very vexed issue”, Hardy told Legal Cheek:

It seems to me that one practical solution would be a presumption in favour of anonymity until conviction with a discretionary power reserved to judges to allow publicity upon application and submissions.