The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is an important tenet of any civilised society. So much so, that this essential right is enshrined in a number of countries’ codes and constitutions.
Under English and Welsh common law, it is for the prosecution to prove the accused’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The United Kingdom is also, of course, a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights which deals with similar such rights at Article 6, further encapsulated in domestic legislation in the form of the Human Rights Act 1998.
What then, of those who feel that their rights in this respect have been undermined?
Radio presenter Paul Gambaccini has recently spoken out about those falsely accused of sexual offences, having been accused of sexual offences himself that he says he did not commit. He was arrested in 2013 on suspicion of historic, or non-recent, sexual offences and was never charged; he has always denied the allegations.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 Today’s programme, he called for people to sign a petition to give anonymity to those suspected of crimes of this nature before they are charged, and spoke of how his name was tarnished by publicity: “Everyone thought it was going to be a three-month wonder… but it turns out it’s dragged out and it’s dragged out, and what makes it worse is that it’s publicised, your name is revealed”.
Whilst many empathise with those falsely accused of a crime they did not commit, the criminal justice system has to find a way to balance competing interests and ensure that the due process of the law can be followed so that any criminal investigation is not impeded..
Prosecutors, when considering whether or not to prosecute in cases of rape and sexual offences, will ask themselves: Is there enough evidence against the defendant? Is it in the public interest for the CPS to bring the case to court?
In some situations, the police consider it appropriate to name a suspect in order to encourage other people to come forward who they believe may have been victims of the accused. Without evidence from others, they might never meet the first limb of the test, and might never be able to charge a suspect.
Restricting the police’s powers to the extent that they are no longer able to do this could result in even fewer prosecutions in cases of rape and sexual assault. Crown Prosecution Service data illustrated in 2016/2017 that men were more likely to be the victim of rape, than the victim of a false allegation of rape. Incidences of people making false allegations remain relatively rare. Of course the ongoing trial of Carl Beech, known as Nick and the source of many allegations linked to Westminster, continues and highlights the challenges faced by the police when investigating allegations of non-recent abuse.
It is important that the victims and survivors of these heinous and deplorable crimes are able to come forward and be taken seriously, and that those responsible are held accountable. The End Violence Against Women Campaign has written an open letter to those seeking a right to anonymity prior to prosecution asking them to think again. They have highlighted “the myth that rape allegations are commonly false and/or vexatious is insinuated, even if it is not intended, in the constant rehearsal of this argument about the need for defendant anonymity.”
It is also important that those accused of crimes of such gravity are presumed innocent throughout the process, such is their right.
The issue is perhaps less the justice process for those accused – as terrifying as the process might be for someone falsely accused of a crime they did not commit – but rather, as Mr Gambaccini points out, the publicity that ensued. Media reporting may not always paint a balanced picture.
As Kelvin MacKenzie, formerly of The Sun newspaper, told the Leveson Inquiry back in 2011, “If it sounded right, it was probably right, and therefore we should lob it in”. With 24-hour news cycles widely accepted as standard, the public’s appetite for sensationalist news is perpetually sated. The variety and reach of contemporary media means that when the press level accusations at celebrities, they are difficult to escape. Uninhibited commentary on social media on these articles is tantamount to the modern day equivalent of men with pitchforks.
Is the issue here the justice process? Or the precarious knife-edge between encouraging victims to report crimes, the freedom of the press to report, and an individual’s right to a fair trial?
Written by Amanda Munro at BLM