The recent conviction of Carl Beech has reignited the debate over whether those accused of sexual offences should be named before they are charged.
The Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland QC last week added to the debate by suggesting that the anonymity of suspected sex offenders should be respected until they are charged – where the individual has a reputation to protect. He also suggested that this principle be extended to all serious crimes.
Buckland was asked to comment in the wake of the conviction of Carl Beech on 22 July 2019. Beech had anonymously named a string of high profile figures of sexual abuse and murder. Beech, who was previously known as ‘Nick’, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for perverting the course of justice and fraud.
Buckland said that reform may be needed to protect the good name of high profile individuals facing serious allegations. He suggested that there should be a test on whether anonymity should be applied. He drew the distinction between a reputable local businessperson accused of a serious offence and a person with a history of criminal offences.
The comments appear to lend support to the campaign to ban the naming of individuals arrested on suspicion of rape and other sexual offences. The campaign is led by Sir Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini who have both been falsely accused of historical sex offences.
10 Downing Street distanced itself from Buckland’s comments stating that they did not reflect government policy.
Chris Henley QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) expressed the view that open justice was a ‘fundamental and valuable cornerstone of the British system’ and that ‘secret arrests were ‘the hallmark of oppressive regimes’. He added that it would be wrong to treat suspects differently depending on their status and public profile.
Labour MP Stella Creasy accused Buckland of proposing a law based ‘on the belief that women lie’.
There are many arguments for and against giving anonymity to those accused of sexual offences. If Buckland’s proposal was adopted it may discourage spurious and vexatious allegations being made by individuals such as Carl Beech who are simply interested in publicity or in discrediting someone for financial gain. However as has been highlighted by many in response to this suggestion the majority of those who disclose abuse do not make spurious allegations. Indeed there are far more people who do not disclose than there are those who make false disclosure.
The proposal also raises serious question about who should be afforded anonymity. It would seem manifestly unfair, for example, if it was provided to a politician or TV personality but not a teacher. This would undermine the principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we are all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.
Written by Nicholas Leigh at BLM