Exclusive: Three in four believe those accused of sexual assaults should be granted anonymity

The Independent poll finds strong public support for the controversial view that suspects in sex cases should enjoy the same right to anonymity as defendants

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The Independent Online

Three out of four people believe that people accused of rape and other sexual assaults should have their identities protected until they are convicted.

A ComRes survey for The Independent found strong public support for the controversial view expressed by Maura McGowan, chairman of the Bar Council, who argued that suspects in sex cases should enjoy the same right to anonymity as defendants.  Some 76 per cent of people agree with the statement that “people accused of sexual assault should be given anonymity until they are proven guilty”, while 18 per cent disagree and six per cent don't know.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is little difference between the two sexes on the issue. Some 74 per cent of women support  anonymity for such defendants,  compared to 78 per cent of men. Liberal Democrat supporters (95 per cent) are more likely to back anonymity than Conservative (76 per cent) and Labour supporters (75 per cent).  People in the top AB social group (80 per cent) are more likely to endorse anonymity than those in the bottom DE grade (67 per cent).

Jill Saward, who became the first UK rape victim to waive her right to anonymity after the Ealing Vicarage rape in 1990 and now campaigns for victims' rights,  said she was “incredibly sad” about the ComRes findings. “People do not understand the danger involved in sexual violence, and don't see the need to protect people from it,” she told The Independent. “People say 'innocent until guilty'. That is fine if you are not the person who has been assaulted.”

Ms Saward added: “It is not about naming and shaming people. I want to name and protect people. I am very sad that people seem to think that protecting men is often more important than protecting those who for whatever reason end up as victims.”

She said such a change in the law would amount to “victim blaming.” She insisted that the number of false claims for sexual assaults was in line with that for other offences, saying that anonymity was not needed to protect men from such allegations.

Ms Saward  argued that protecting the identities of people accused of sex crimes might stop other victims coming forward in high-profile cases like that of Jimmy Savile, while allowing names to become public would give them the confidence to go the police. “There is a danger of repeat offenders constantly getting away with it,” she said. 

Anonymity was given to defendants in rape cases by the 1976 Sexual Offences Act but removed 12 years later.  Plans to restore it were included in the original Coalition Agreement after the 2010 general election but later dropped.  Publicly, ministers said there was not enough evidence to justify such a change. Privately, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians said they were under the impression that the other party supported the move, when neither did.

Ms McGowan said in February: “Until they have been proven to have done something as awful as this, I think there is a strong argument in cases of this sort - because they carry such stigma with them - to maintain the defendant's anonymity. But once the defendant is convicted then of course everything should be open to scrutiny and to the public.”

The Bar Council chairman admitted there was an argument for the present system.  She said that when anonymity had been given to defendants,  “there was a sense that perhaps it was affording too much protection to people. There is obviously a public interest in open justice - people would say they're entitled to know not simply who's convicted, but who's been accused.”

Her call was rejected by Terry Harrison, who considered suicide after being falsely accused of rape five years ago. “If a person has done such a heinous crime then they should be named and shamed, I agree - but not until they have been done for it,” he said.“I was guilty until I was proven innocent and even when I was proven innocent I'm still getting judged.”

ComRes interviewed 1,001 GB adults by telephone between April 26-28. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults. Data were also weighted by past vote recall. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.