During the 1980s, in order to make claimants more comfortable and at ease about accusing sex offenders, claimants were granted full anonymity whilst defendants were named when charged. Or, if the police deemed it necessary, the accused might be named prior to being charged. This has often been regarded as a controversial move and in the 2003 Sex Offenders Act, Lord Ackner attempted to pass a clause granting the defendant the same right to anonymity as complainants. Ultimately, it was rejected on the grounds that it promoted ‘a presumption of doubt about the credibility of the complainant in sex offence cases which does not exist with other kinds of offences.’
However, in light of recent false accusations of high profile celebrities, the law is coming under scrutiny again. Most recently, Cliff Richard has been in the public eye for historic sexual abuse allegations made by four men dating between 1958 and 1983; however he has just been cleared by Prosecutors on the grounds of “insufficient evidence”.
There were nine allegations made against Richard in total but five of them failed to even meet a standard that would enable them to be passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service; the others were destroyed by lawyers in a matter of weeks. Nonetheless, Richard will potentially live with a tarnished reputation for the rest of his life.
Since being cleared of the accusations, Richard has made many statements on the treatments of defendants, commenting: ‘I feel very strongly that no innocent person should be treated in this way. I know the truth and in some people’s eyes the CPS announcement does not go far enough, because it does not expressly state that I am innocent, which of course I am.’
Richard now wants to end what he views as a ‘witch hunt’ against celebrities and high profile figures whom he believes have had their reputations ruined by ‘unfounded’ accusations. He is not the only celebrity who has recently been accused of sexual offences before having their innocence proved. For instance, Paul Gambaccini spent a year on police bail because of false allegations of historic sex abuse against two teenagers.
This current protocol of naming those accused of sex offences is not as unfounded as Richard is claiming. It is there in order to enable others who may have been abused by the accused to come forward despite not feeling comfortable, and it has been useful. For instance, when Stuart Hall was convicted of multiple offences against girls (some as young as 9) in 2012, women were more confident to come forward when he was accused by name. Being named initially enabled a strong case to be made against him and was undoubtedly crucial in uncovering the full truth.
Whilst it is true to claim that Richard has been treated unfairly by the press and the police (which he has claimed has had a significant impact on his health) these demands for anonymity for defendants or for all accused fails to take in the wider impact of sexual offence crimes. The majority of these crimes are not even reported and false accusations are exceedingly rare. Those falsely accused of sexual offence crimes are no larger a proportion than those falsely accused of other crimes.
Enabling anonymity to defendants requires us to question why anonymity would not be given to those accused of other crimes, such as murder. Ultimately, it could be crucial for the names of those accused of sex offences to be released to the public, in order to enable other claimants to come forward despite the subject remaining a taboo.
Image credit: Eva Rinaldi