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Yesterday in the Commons saw a debate covering the Coalition Government's proposals to "extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants".
There were many well-informed contributions and a number of the new Conservative intake contributed to voice their concern about the proposal and to make alternative suggestions as to a way forward.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe), was a criminal defence barrister before entering Parliament, and noted how other victims come forward once an alleged perpetrator is publicly identified:
"I have no doubt from my practice and from talking to other members of the Bar and to members of the judiciary that when a name is put into the public domain other complainants come forward. There are many instances of it. I know from my practice that when the name of a priest who was arrested went into the local newspaper, other women came forward who had been to him and to whom he had been their minister. When they knew that others had made a complaint, they came forward. That tendency should not be underestimated."
She has a proposal of her own which she is putting forward via a Private Member's Bill:
"I ask the Minister to consider allowing anybody who is arrested to enjoy the privilege, almost, of not having his or her name published in the press. I believe that we can do that effectively and efficiently while still allowing the prosecution to apply to a judge, depending on the particular circumstances of an offence, for the name to be published. We must allow our judges to exercise their discretion, which they usually do, when they are allowed to do their jobs, particularly well."
Lousie Bagshwe (Corby) agreed with this idea:
"The main concern—it has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House—is the exceptional nature of rape that is implied in the current proposals. However, I suggest that the Minister look at the wording of the phrase in the coalition document. It says that we will introduce anonymity for rape defendants, not that we will bring forward anonymity only for rape defendants. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, in her very fine speech, offered a good compromise that Ministers might like to consider. She suggested that there is a case for looking at the trauma of people who are wrongly accused of crimes of all stripes, and for considering widening anonymity to those accused of sexual crimes or crimes of extreme violence. They might also consider giving discretion to judges and the police. Surely that is one way forward."
Robert Buckland (Swindon South) – another barrister – wants to go even further than Anna Soubry:
"I would go further and propose discretion throughout the course of the trial. That could cover a range of different allegations. It would also allow a properly informed judge, faced with an unmeritorious application from a defendant who perhaps did not deserve the protection of reporting restrictions as much as someone of good character, to make a decision based on all the information before them. That would remove the quite natural emotion that we hear in debates such as this one, and allow us to avoid the natural collision of views over the investigation of the serious crime of rape, as well as the more general issues about journalism, reporting and reputation. For that reason, I urge the Government to think again about their current position and to widen the ambit of the measure to include a wide range of offences."
Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) spoke from her experience as a former forensic medical examiner for Devon and Cornwall police:
"I completely understand the many arguments made in favour of protecting the innocent who are subject to false allegations, but we need to remember that the odds are heavily stacked in their favour. For every 100 women I saw—I believed the vast majority of them—I can count on the fingers of one hand the number who had their day in court and saw a conviction. We need to be clear that the scales are already tipped in favour of the defendant in a rape case. We need to be very careful that we do not add a further barrier to women coming forward and making allegations."
Meanhwile, Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) drew on her experience investigating sexual violence in conflict for the Conservatives’ human
rights commission and as a volunteer for a domestic abuse
"I am worried that the proposal will send the wrong message to rape victims at a time when we have managed to turn around the culture of disbelief and the poor treatment of rape victims by police and the courts… I am also concerned that anonymity will prevent women who find out that their rapist is charged with another offence from coming forward. At the same time, we must accept that in this country, innocent until proven guilty is the fundamental tenet of our law, and we must defend it fiercely. The imperative to protect ourselves, our families and our communities is one of the strongest that we experience, but we must ensure that in trying to do that, we do not give away the very life we want to protect. The rule of law shields us in our innocence and punishes us only in guilt."
"Few of us on either side of this House would be comfortable with the suggestion that automatic anonymity should be granted for any point beyond charge. If proposals were to be made, I would be keen to see a framework that required judicial oversight after charge and a set of criteria that limited eligibility to exceptional circumstances, for example where the police do not consider the defendant a risk to others or if his ability to continue working or living in his community would be catastrophically affected. As has been mentioned, in 2003 the Home Affairs Committee recommended anonymity between allegation and charge, but I would point out that that was for all sexual offences, not just rape. It seems reasonable to offer anonymity for the first period, but I am not necessarily convinced about any period beyond that."