The Westminster sex scandal: It’s time for defendant anonymity to be reinstated

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By William Temple on

Death of Carl Sargeant a wake-up call?

The courts currently have the power, in all criminal cases, to restrict the publicity of a case where that publicity risks the administration of justice. But until the case reaches court, the defendant’s identity and reputation — and those of his or her family and friends — all lie at the mercy of public opinion.

‘Innocent until proven guilty’ has been an age-old adage of our criminal law and our politicians, sex pests or nay, are not being afforded this ancient right.

Anonymity for rape complainants and defendants was introduced in 1975 but in 1988, at the behest of a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, anonymity for defendants was withdrawn. This remains the case today.

We are now at a stage where trial by media, where press coverage fuels public opinion, often begins before the suspect has even been charged. Unlike murder or theft, the legal definitions of sexual offences can be harder to apply to the facts of any given case and as a consequence they are open to misapplication. In Cliff Richard’s case, this lasted for two years, before the police decided not to charge him. Kevin Spacey, it seems, may suffer a similar fate.

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In and among the recent Westminster sex scandal, which saw Defence Secretary Michael Fallon hand in his resignation, some have complained the mood of today could be fuelling baseless allegations. This train of thought is likely to be exacerbated by the death of Carl Sargeant, the Welsh politician found dead not long after being suspended from the Labour Party over allegations.

While Sargeant’s death should not deter people from coming forward with allegations, it may have the effect of doing so if we do not change the law on anonymity of suspects of sexual offences.

When Leon Brittan, the Home Secretary of Thatcher’s government, called for reform of MI5 in the 1980s, allegations surfaced that he was linked to a paedophile ring in Westminster.

It was not until Private Eye suggested that the unsavoury allegations might be linked to his shake up of MI5 did they begin to die away. Brittan died in 2015 aged 75, just months after the allegations resurfaced in parliament. They were never substantiated and only this year the Metropolitan Police agreed to pay about £50,000 to his wife in compensation.

It’s not known whether or not the security services were behind the allegations, and/or if the allegations caused Brittan’s early death. But, rather like Sargeant’s story, it does show the devastating effect these allegations can have on a person, true or not.

There are of course arguments against the reintroduction of defendant anonymity.

When the question of defendant anonymity in rape cases was raised in the House of Commons in 1988 there was concern that if a man accused of rape could be afforded anonymity then what would be the argument against providing anonymity to defendants of other crimes such as murder or theft. If this wider anonymity was introduced, it would offend the old principle of open justice, which ensures the integrity of the justice system by allowing public access to the judicial process. In turn, public scrutiny of the process would be diminished, leading public confidence in it to become dented.

Public confidence in our judicial system does not, however, depend solely on the principle of open justice. The equally important principle of fair trial, for example, also needs to be taken into consideration in order to ensure public confidence in our judicial system.

In an age of social media, when ‘fake news’ has established itself as a defining phenomenon and ‘post-truth’ has like a cuckoo found a home in the English Dictionary, we should counter media excitement with the age-old precept of innocent until proven guilty. Technology has redefined our age and we should adapt the legal principle of open justice accordingly. Reconsider defendant anonymity before cases reach court.

William Temple is a graduate of Warwick University and City University of London. He is a litigation paralegal.

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