The complications surrounding defendant anonymity

Whilst the anonymity of complainants in serious sexual offences has long been protected in English law, defendant anonymity has proved a far more contentious issue.  It was initially granted along with victim anonymity in the 1970s, but later abolished in 1988.  It was argued that, unlike the case for victims, there was no reason to make a special exception for defendants and in fact, by doing so, it could imply that rape complainants were less reliable. It has also been argued by both women’s groups and the police that such a law would prevent investigating officers’ calls for other complainants to come forward in serial cases, such as in the case of the taxi driver, John Worboys, the ‘black cab rapist’.

The issue has been raised a number of times over the last few years following a string of high-profile cases, affecting politicians and celebrities alike.  The media spotlight on these cases and the public sympathy towards individuals like Sir Cliff Richards has helped move the debate forward.  A YouGov poll in 2015 found that there was widespread opinion favouring the need to protect both complainant and defendant.  Speaking after the police dropped his case, Sir Cliff described a unique violation of his privacy by a sensationalist media.

In addition to the disproportionate attention these stories attract, the coverage is often of such a lurid and intrusive nature that it arguably leaves a stigma which goes beyond other crime.  In 2015 both Nigel Evans the conservative MP and the radio one DJ, Paul Gambaccini, gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about their personal suffering whilst subjected to protracted and highly publicised investigations by the police.   In his concluding remarks Committee Chairman, Keith Vaz, spoke of the destruction and irreparable damage to the reputation of defendants.

It now appears that we are moving towards ever tighter restrictions on press coverage in respect of sexual offence allegations.  The above committee report called for anonymity for sexual offence suspects, unless they were charged or police needed to name them. More recently in late 2016 the DPP, Alison Saunders, came out in favour of anonymity for defendants.  She was quoted in The Times as saying, “you don’t shout about it before you come to any conclusion”.

Building trust between police and complainants

Investigations into allegations of sexual abuse pose unique challenges for the police, especially in striking the right balance between their responsibilities to the complainant and to the accused.    The ongoing football abuse scandal serves to highlight some of these challenges.

The unfolding revelations that followed Andy Woodward’s decision to waive anonymity and speak out about his ordeal at Crewe Alexander, raised the spectre of widespread and systematic abuse reminiscent of that uncovered during the Saville investigation.  Similarly, the personal accounts we have heard from ex-footballers like Mr Woodward and Paul Stewart, the former England and Spurs star, served as a timely reminder of the psychological damage inflicted upon the victims of these crimes, and the unique challenges they face in coming forward.

It is essential that survivors have the confidence and reassurance to speak out, and the police undoubtedly have a role to play in this.  Days after Woodward’s revelations to The Guardian, Cheshire constabulary put out highly publicised appeals urging victims to contact them, and assuring them their reports will be taken ‘extremely seriously’.

Despite the seemingly compelling evidence that surfaced in relation to at least one sexual predator, police had to, and must continue to, remain vigilant against the risk of bias creeping into their conduct.   However, following the string of failed investigations in the wake of Saville, there is a growing concern that the impartiality and objectivity of the police has been found wanting.

It is widely accepted that Saville’s offending went undetected as long as it did because of a society-wide reluctance to speak openly about child abuse.  Police forces have taken it upon themselves to remedy this problem.   Operation Hydrant was set up in the wake of the Saville revelations to share good practice.  It emphasised the need to build trust and rapport with the complainant.  To this end, it was felt that anyone who came forward should be recognised and referred to as a victim. In explaining the new approach, the head of Operation Hydrant, Chief constable Simon Bailey, claimed that “if we don’t acknowledge a victim as such, it reinforces a system based on distrust and disbelief”.

 A Policy of ‘believing victims’

The end of 2016 saw the publication of Sir Richard Henriques’ report into the mishandling of Operation Midland, the 18 month investigation by Scotland Yard into allegations of historic abuse levelled against prominent members of the establishment including former head of military, Lord Bamell, and former conservative MP, Harvey Proctor.  Sir Richard’s report identified 43 separate failings by the police during the investigation.  The central criticism being that they were too ready to believe the complainant without sufficient scrutiny of the evidence. It attributed these failings directly to Operation Hydrant.  Sir Richard took aim at the police practice of labelling complainants as “victims”, (just as Cheshire constabulary did in the wake of Woodward’s revelations, saying that it was a cardinal principle of the justice system that a complaint maybe false. He stated that “the policy of ‘believing victims’ strikes at the very core of the criminal justice process” and warned that “it has and will generate miscarriages of justice on a considerable scale”.

It is now widely felt that in so many of the high profile investigations into abuse since Saville, such as Operation Midland and those levelled against Sir Cliff, Paul Gambaccini and Nigel Evans, the investigation was pursued in spite of the lack of credible evidence.

The real damage to these individuals is to do with the unique stigma attached to the suspects of sexual abuse and how in the above cases their reputations were trodden on by unscrupulous officers who were quick to name the accused in the hope that it would encourage others to come forward and bolster inherently weak cases.  In his evidence to the home affairs select committee, Mr Gambaccini described the way police hung his name up in public during a year-long investigation as being a ‘fly paper tactic’.   Sharing his grievance, conservative MP Nigel Evans said, “I don’t believe that people ought to be plastered all over every national newspaper just to fish other people out”.

It is the strength of these personal accounts that has driven a recent revival of debate around the issue.   As already mentioned, prominent figures like Keith Vaz, Sir Henriques and the DPP, Alison Saunders have now called for a change in the law to reintroduce defendant anonymity.

The Power of Reporting

However, there may be an occasion when naming a suspect is a necessary and proper adjunct to an investigation. The manner in which the recent football revelations unfolded speaks eloquently of the power of reporting.  Andy Woodward’s brave decision to waive anonymity brought media coverage and attention to his ordeal and acted as a rallying cry to others to come forward.  It is arguably the case that naming his attacker added further weight to the story and helped propel it onto the front-page news, thereby maximising its impact.  Cheshire police confirmed that a further 11 footballers came forward in the days following the stories publication, and the NSPCC reportedly received 50 calls to their helpline in the first two hours of its operation.  This domino effect of complaints is reminiscent of what happened in the Saville investigation, along with other serial abuse cases, and many see the police’s discretion to name the suspect as being a vital trigger in this process.

Furthermore, it should be appreciated that many of the footballers who have come forward have suppressed painful memories of their ordeals throughout their entire adult lives. Mr Stewart, for example, talked about the heartbreak he felt in sharing his story with close family members before its publication in the Mirror.  They need every reassurance that their claims will be taken seriously.  Some feel a blanket law protecting defendant anonymity in sexual abuse cases alone will set it apart from other types of criminal case and in doing so send the wrong message that complainants, like Mr Stewart, are less likely to be believed than complainants in other types of criminal cases.   Following the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report in 2015, rape victim’s campaigner, Jill Saward talking on the Today program described how the committees proposal were insulting and claimed that it implied victims are lying.  Peter Watt of the NSPCC also spoke out against the committees proposals arguing that the naming of suspects gave other victims the strength to speak out.

The matter has now gone to parliament following the tabled amendment of the Policing and Crime Bill and already the issue is proving to be as polarising within the house as it has been in the wider public.    During recent debate in the House of Lords, Lord Judge spoke out openly against a blanket protection of defendant’s anonymity invoking the overriding principle of open justice.  He said, “That is not how we work in this country. We do not want people locked up for any time at all without being able to say so.”   Lord Lamont on the other hand suggested that a lack of defendant anonymity, in the case of this crime, undermined the British understanding of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Responsibility of the Police and their relationship with the press

The debate within parliament must go further than a consideration of the rights of defendants against those of victims and pay heed to a wider issue; that of the public’s confidence in the police handling of abuse investigations and in particular their relationship with the media.

It is interesting that the highly controversial report produced by the Home Affairs Committee back in 2015 did little more than call for reform of the law in terms already set out in current police guidance.   In November 2012, Leveson LJ said in his Report on The Culture Practices and Ethics of the Press that ‘It should be made abundantly clear that save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances (for example, where there may be an immediate risk to the public), the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press nor the public.’

In 2013, the College of Policing published ‘Guidance on Relationships with the Media’ which dealt with the issue of the police revealing the names of individuals suspected of committing serious crimes. It followed the principle set out by Leveson. The Guidance advocates that ‘police forces must balance an individual’s right to respect for a private and family life, the rights of publishers to freedom of expression and the rights of defendants to a fair trial. Decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis but, save in clearly identified circumstances, or where legal restrictions apply, the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released by police forces to the press or the public.

The loss of impartiality and objectivity of the police, and the danger that unscrupulous officers are ignoring the above guidance and publishing the names of suspects in desperate attempts to attract others to come forward and bolster inherently weak cases is highly problematic.  The objections to defendant anonymity boil down to the argument that the police must retain operational independence.   However this argument in turn raises the question of whether the police can be trusted to pursue their investigations impartially and objectively. The opinion of some, such as Sir Henriques in his report on the failed Operation Midland is that currently they can’t.  His report concludes with the warning that “nobody is safe from false accusations and damaging exposure under present arrangements”.

The investigation into allegations of historic abuse raises particular challenges. The recent failures discussed, highlight the fundamental requirement upon police that their conduct remain objective and impartial, and that any derogation from this principle would constitute an abuse of their powers. The naming of suspects is such a power that has been too readily abused.  Perhaps we have now reached the stage where a change in the law to provide added protection to suspects is necessary where the police guidance has been so flagrantly disregarded in a long line of investigations.  However, as the recent football revelations highlight, there will be cases where the naming of a suspect maybe a necessary and proportionate step and just as the select committee first proposed back in 2015, rather than a blanket protection, any such change to the law must allow for the possibility of judicial intervention to waive defendant anonymity in such rare cases.

Robert Conway

Robert Conway

Director - Criminal Defence team at Vardags

Robert Conway is Director - Criminal Defence team at leading law firm Vardags. He has over 10 years’ experience advising clients who have been arrested and are subject to investigation by the police and other investigating bodies including the SFO and HMRC. After gaining his higher rights in 2011 he has regularly conducted trials at the Crown Court and defended clients in respect of a full range of criminal cases from violent and sexual offences to fraud and serious and complex trafficking and drug conspiracies. He has experience of representing clients in high profile cases and successfully defended a client in the SFO’s first successful prosecution of a corporate for bribery arising from allegations concerning corrupt overseas payments.

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About Robert Conway

Robert Conway is Director – Criminal Defence team at leading law firm Vardags. He has over 10 years’ experience advising clients who have been arrested and are subject to investigation by the police and other investigating bodies including the SFO and HMRC. After gaining his higher rights in 2011 he has regularly conducted trials at the Crown Court and defended clients in respect of a full range of criminal cases from violent and sexual offences to fraud and serious and complex trafficking and drug conspiracies. He has experience of representing clients in high profile cases and successfully defended a client in the SFO’s first successful prosecution of a corporate for bribery arising from allegations concerning corrupt overseas payments.