The veil of anonymity

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Retaining the veil of anonymity for those accused of sexual crimes must be applied evenly and consistently, or not at all writes John O’Keeffe


When the nation learnt last month that a sexual assault had taken place in Athlone on two young girls, we were astounded that such atrocious acts could be committed. Even in my work, it is thankfully unusual to hear of such vicious attacks on children in broad daylight. Tragically, in the land of those who sexually assault children, no depravity is ever too low. I may have been shocked – sadly however, I was not surprised.

And now there is another issue to add to the pot of criminological confusion – that of the rolling anonymity of the accused unless, and until, found guilty at trial. This 30-year-old man in the Athlone case has had his name protected and of course a plethora of reasons exist as to why this might be so.

Michael Le Vell

Michael Le Vell

The recent case of actor Michael Le Vell, who plays Kevin Webster in Coronation Street, is instructive. In September 2011, he was accused of a sexual offence, which he strenuously denied. In January 2012, the  Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) dropped the case, citing insufficient evidence. One might have imagined the case was then closed. However in February 2013, the principal legal adviser to CPS stated that she had reviewed a decision not to prosecute him and authorised  Greater Manchester Police to charge Le Vell with 19 offences. The news was out as far as the print and broadcast media were concerned. The Coronation Street star was a child abuser in the minds of many before he had even come before a jury.

The trial revealed much of Le Vell’s personal life, which gripped the public interest in the UK and Ireland. We learnt he was alcohol dependent and had engaged in a series of one night stands and casual relationships. Yet the jury handed down not guilty verdicts on the 12 different charges. Coronation Street’s Kevin Webster is a free man and may now go back to his garage and all the ups and downs of street life. Yet how free is he? Thanks to the release of his name the public view of him is at best a drunken womaniser and at worst all of the above plus the suspicion that the police would never have filed such charges with the DPP unless there was some germ of truth in the story. When it comes to sexual charges, being found not guilty can often mean guilty ‘light’ in the public eye.

We know that lifting the veil of anonymity of those accused of sexual crimes can have a devastating affect on the person about whom the allegation is made if subsequently cleared of charges in open court. In the UK, Christine Hamilton and Neil Hamilton were falsely accused of sexual assault. Notwithstanding their somewhat lightweight media careers to that point, these false allegations are said to have ruined them both on a personal basis.

Reg Travis, an ex boyfriend of the late Amy Winehouse, was the subject of a malicious and fictitious sexual allegation. He was eventually acquitted but only after his name had been tarnished and his character assassinated. His lawyer commented that, “What is unbelievable is that if we hadn’t found them coming out of the club on CCTV, which the police had totally failed to identify, there was a real risk of a miscarriage of justice.”

Jimmy Savile

Jimmy Savile

So where is the justice for those who have been accused? The recent cases of known child abuse in the UK have of course encouraged many of us to believe that the lifting of the veil of anonymity in such cases is not only desirable but essential so that other victims will be encouraged to come forward. Operation Yewtree has uncovered that Jimmy Savile abused upwards of 300 victims (children and older). Rolf Harris; also charged. Stuart Hall; convicted. Max Clifford; arrested and charged with 11 counts of indecent assault. Jimmy Tarbuck; arrested. Jim Davidson; arrested. The list goes on but the question remains – should the pubic have known their names before they went to trial and justice was done?

The public appears to disagree. Surveys in the UK reveal that some 75% of the population think an accused charged with a sexual offence should be given anonymity. Furthermore, on the available evidence, the Rape Crisis Centre in UK also believes some 10% of all rape/sexual assault accusations are false. A study by TCD in 2009 says it may be 9% in Ireland.

In Ireland anonymity is only guaranteed in cases of rape that come before the Central Criminal Court, yet still the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland has also backed calls for those charged with a sexual offence, to have the same right to anonymity as the victim until found guilty, regardless of forum.

These arguments remain persuasive. The stigma of being accused of a sexual crime is life long – regardless of whether guilty or not. Furthermore, research has shown that the general public tends to believe that authorities do not bring charges unless they have good evidence. The fact that the accused may then have been found ‘not guilty’ does not necessarily mean they did not do it in the public eye – rather that they are ‘legally’ not guilty. In other words the prosecution was unable to satisfy the jury beyond all reasonable doubt – a mere evidential cock up as it were.

There is also the real concern about the level of false allegations being made against innocent individuals in sex cases – perhaps as high as one in ten. Such accusers get to keep their anonymity and in some cases may even go on to accuse others. Where’s the fairness in that?

“We either legislate to ensure that all those committed of sexual crimes remain anonymous until the time they are found guilty at trial or not at all…”

Many victims of sexual crime and their families view matters through a different prism however. Lifting the veil of anonymity of the accused, allows others to then come forward who might otherwise not have done so. Furthermore, while there is stigma for those accused of rape, any stigma for those accused, far outweighs the damage done to the victim if they are denied that anonymity.

As ever in Ireland the issue is as much one of inconsistency and prevarication, as one of justice. We cannot allow certain persons who have been accused of sexual crimes to retain anonymity and not others. We either legislate to ensure that all those committed of sexual crimes remain anonymous until the time they are found guilty at trial or not at all. Either before, or following a not-guilty verdict, their anonymity must remain – or it must not.

On balance the arguments against revealing an accused’s identity in sexual crime are too strong to ignore. We cannot however adopt an a la carte approach. Either, we lift anonymity for all sexual crime allegations or we do not – there is no halfway-house.

The truth of course remains that if we had a robust criminal justice system that incarcerated sexual offenders for significant periods of time, alongside muscular rehabilitative programmes, few would have any problems with the accused remaining anonymous. Before we legislate however for blanket anonymity, it would be useful to firstly fix the criminal justice system upon which such a right would be pegged.  n

John O’Keeffe is Director, Institute of Criminology & Policing Studies and Adjunct Teaching Fellow, School of Psychology, Trinity College, Dublin

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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