Is it time for a change in the law?

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Is it time for a change in the law?

Post by tocyvi on Wed Sep 11, 2013 6:30 pm

The recent trial of a Coronation Street actor (if that’s the correct word for people on soaps) points up a grossly unfair part of the legal system. Michael le Vell stood accused of sexually assaulting and raping a young girl and, during the trial, had his somewhat seedy private life exposed to the public. The accuser, a young girl, quite rightly, retained her anonymity throughout the process.

Le Vell was subsequently found innocent of all charges and walked from the court a free man. He did not, however, walk from the court untainted by the experience. There will be some who use the old adage “No smoke without fire”; there will be others who use the information elicited during the trial to draw up conclusions about the man and it is true to say that the unfounded allegations and the exposed private life exploits will haunt him for the rest of his days, whilst the accuser retains her anonymity and, as yet, appears not to have been subject to any legal action.

Is it not time for a change in the law to allow anonymity for the accused until the final decision of guilt or otherwise has been announced? We now know that Le Vell is not guilty and yet in some peoples’ eyes, he is not innocent. Any of us could be wrongfully accused of a crime and yet find our name splashed all over the front papers. This seems to me to be fundamentally wrong.
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Re: Is it time for a change in the law?

Post by Richard T on Wed Sep 11, 2013 8:46 pm

On the one hand I feel some sympathy for wrongly accused defendants but equally I strongly believe that secrecy is not a good basis on which to operate a justice system.

If anonymity is to be granted as a matter of course then why not extend it to anyone accused of anything, all of whom have the potential for their private lives to be exposed during examination in court with consequential reputational damage? What about those falsley accused of murder? Why do we only talk about anonymity in the context of sexual offences?

To be honest I am not convinced that accusers in sexual cases should automatically be granted anonymity and even less so should the allegations prove to be unfounded. Currently it seems that anyone can make any false allegations about anyone - whether motivated by malice or the possibility of financial compensation - and simply "get away with it" whatever the consequences of their actions.

My sense is that despite its obvious prurience society is so prudish that it seeks to veil any open discussion of sexual matters. In the Le Vell case, for example, very little detail about the accusations has been reported in the media so it's very difficult for us to come to our own conclusions about culpability. Perhaps if we weren't so uptight about sex then accusers would feel less need for the protection granted by anonymity. Our current approach merely reinforces our prudishness.

Although I am yet to be convinced, my gut feeling is not that defendants should be granted anonymity as a matter of course but that accusers should only be granted anonymity in certain cases (e.g. where they are particularly vulnerable, where their lives are at risk etc). That at least would redress the balance and also provide a more open justice system.

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Re: Is it time for a change in the law?

Post by tocyvi on Wed Sep 11, 2013 10:44 pm

Richard T wrote:If anonymity is to be granted as a matter of course then why not extend it to anyone accused of anything, all of whom have the potential for their private lives to be exposed during examination in court with consequential reputational damage? What about those falsley accused of murder? Why do we only talk about anonymity in the context of sexual offences?
Hi Richard. Thanks for your comments. When I was writing, I did consider the suggestion that people accused of any crime should benefit from anonymity until the judgement was made. I can see no reason why that would prejudice a case in any way, so …..why not?

Richard T wrote:To be honest I am not convinced that accusers in sexual cases should automatically be granted anonymity and even less so should the allegations prove to be unfounded. Currently it seems that anyone can make any false allegations about anyone - whether motivated by malice or the possibility of financial compensation - and simply "get away with it" whatever the consequences of their actions.
I agree with the tenor of your point but in this case, I get the impression that the girl is/was under the age of consent and consequently would be granted anonymity whatever her allegation. It does seem to be grossly unfair, however, that the identity of one party can be concealed for reason of age whilst the other has no protection whatsoever.

Richard T wrote:Although I am yet to be convinced, my gut feeling is not that defendants should be granted anonymity as a matter of course….
I can’t see the downside to this, to be honest. Why shouldn’t anybody accused of a crime be entitled to anonymity until their guilt is proven. The problem with open reporting is that anyone who is accused of a crime is tried twice: once in the court of the judicial system and again in the court of the public bar of the Dog ‘n Duck. I have far more faith in the former for all its failings; the latter has little respect for such niceties as facts and proof.
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Re: Is it time for a change in the law?

Post by Richard T on Thu Sep 12, 2013 11:59 am

tocyvi wrote:
Hi Richard. Thanks for your comments. When I was writing, I did consider the suggestion that people accused of any crime should benefit from anonymity until the judgement was made. I can see no reason why that would prejudice a case in any way, so …..why not?
Possibly because the British justice system (with all its faults) is admired and copied throughout the world and has been built upon openness rather than secrecy.

Of course no justice system is perfect but it feels to me that the well-meaning granting of anonymity to anyone charged with any crime could have unintended consequences. It could well hamper police enquires, it is known that in the Stuart Hall case additional evidence which helped secure his conviction was only able to be gathered as a result of the publicity surrounding the case. In the age of internet it seems unlikely to me that anonymity could be absolutely guaranteed and you could well find it leading to a sort of "trade" in suspects' names.

I do think however that perhaps the Crown Prosecution Service needs to tighten its criteria for pursuing suspects to ensure better prospects of securing a conviction. There definitely feels to be a sort of witch hunt about the latest batch of celebrity arrests and prosecutions.

The problem with open reporting is that anyone who is accused of a crime is tried twice: once in the court of the judicial system and again in the court of the public bar of the Dog ‘n Duck. I have far more faith in the former for all its failings; the latter has little respect for such niceties as facts and proof.
You're right. Look at the media coverage of Chris Jeffries in the Joanna Yeates murder case. But this is surely more an issue about the way society allows its media to act rather than an implication of the justice system.

As I said before I'm not completely convinced that anonymity should not be granted to defendants but I do think there may be a case for anonymity when someone is merely arrested on suspicion of a crime until such time as they are formally charged and the CPS has agreed to pursue them through the legal system. But in short, the pursuit of justice is a public event; the granting of anonymity denies society the opportunity to witness it in action.

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Re: Is it time for a change in the law?

Post by Myriam on Thu Sep 12, 2013 4:40 pm

The term "innocent until proven guilty" springs to mind here, so yes, I do agree with anonymity until the judge has reached a verdict. This could be achieved by only mentioning the initials of the accused until the verdict, ie. proven guilty, like it is done in the Netherlands. However, in the case of a well-known personality, the gutter press will still get hold of the story and write about the accused in such a descriptive way that everyone knows who they are reporting about. After the trial, there would however be the recourse of suing the paper for defamation of character, slander, etc.
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