Editorial: An unproven case for anonymity

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The Independent Online

The ways in which the legal system deals with accusations of rape are rightly a sensitive area. The crime is one that still carries a unique stigma for the victim, conviction rates are woefully low, and too many liken their experience of the criminal justice process to being raped all over again.

It was into such a maelstrom that Maura McGowan stepped, last weekend. The chairwoman of the UK Bar Council proposed that suspects accused of sexual crimes should remain anonymous – just as complainants are – until such time as they are convicted.

The deputy High Court judge's suggestion cannot be dismissed out of hand. After all, an accusation of rape also carries considerable disgrace, and even an acquittal cannot necessarily shift it.

There is also the question of equality to consider; different treatment of the complainant and the suspect raises issues for a fair legal system. Indeed, some suggest that such a disparity can prejudice the trial, by implicitly undermining the character of the accused.

To acknowledge that the arguments are complex does not obviate the need to choose between them, however. And the case for retaining the current system is manifestly the stronger.

As it is, barely more than one in 10 incidents of sexual assault is reported to the police, mostly due to shame and fears of not being believed. Another swathe of accusations never make it to trial, and fewer still secure a conviction. Any move which throws up even higher hurdles is difficult to justify. One that comes with the implicit suggestion that women lie about rape – when, in fact, the proportion is infinitesimal – is even more so.

Among the many lessons of the Savile scandal, the need for better information-sharing about sexual crime was one of the most compelling. To allow suspects to hide their identities can only be a step in the wrong direction. The existing system – imperfect as it is – is still the best option.