Should we name those accused of sex crimes?

Posted by Malcolm Johnson on

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Recently, certain high profile accusations have created a groundswell of calls for anonymity.

Today, The Times reports that geography teacher, Kato Harris has been cleared of rape allegations made by a 14 year old school girl. Mr Harris was teaching at a private all-girl school in Camden, London when the accusations were made. The jury took just 26 minutes to find him innocent. Harris is said to be ruined by his legal costs, which are said to run to just under £200,000.

Mr Harris' claim is just one of many high profile claims that are said to result in irreversible "reputational damage".

Some argue that Parliament's decision to remove anonymity from Defendants in sexual abuse cases is "nonsensical". One commentator, Clare Foges writing in the Times says:-

"With so many innocent men having their reputations ruined, it's time we went back to a system of automatic immunity."

My own view is that vulnerable people need encouragement to come forward after suffering a sex attack. The publication of Defendants' details has proved crucial in giving victims the confidence to seek justice. The media coverage of Jimmy Saville's crimes is just one example of people coming forward many years after the event. It also highlighted the failures of corporations such as the BBC who missed chances to stop the attacks.

I would argue that the only thing that anonymizing the accused would achieve is a reduction in the number of real victims coming forward.

  • Firstly, vulnerable people need encouragement to come forward after suffering an attack. Defendants' identities have been publicised for decades and this has proved highly successful in in giving victims the confidence to seek justice. For instance, the media coverage of the crimes of Jimmy Saville resulted in a huge number of people coming forward. It also highlighted the errors of corporations like the BBC for missed chances to stop attacks. This would suggest that the law is effective regardless of time frames.
  • Furthermore, giving anonymity to Defendants is a restriction of public knowledge, which is likely to face backlash. Those who call for the names of defendants to be withheld are mainly concerned about the stigma that comes with being accused. However this assumes that most people believe that a person, who is found innocent, is still guilty. I do not believe that this is the case. There are always "trolls" on the internet that will make unfounded allegations against people, but how many people actually believe them?  
  • Finally, if the identities of those accused of sex crimes are withheld, then we may see a "domino effect" whereby there are then calls for people accused of other crimes to have anonymity. One of the central purposes of the criminal justice system is to act as a deterrent. That deterrent should not be restricted simply to the risk of conviction and punishment, but the whole process of prosecution.

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Malcolm is an Senior Associate in our London office, with nearly twenty years' experience.

Malcolm Johnson
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