Trial and error in the Nigel Evans trial

The Evans acquittal does not mean the case should never have been brought, but it should force a rethink on legal aid

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The Independent Online

The acquittal of Nigel Evans – Conservative MP and former Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons – on a string of sexual assault charges has prompted a slew of questions on issues as diverse as legal aid and the courts’ approach to rape allegations.

Most notably, the Crown Prosecution Service is itself in the dock following last week’s verdict. Not only are there questions as to whether there was sufficient evidence against Mr Evans; given that he joins a list of high-profile figures cleared of (often historical) sexual offences, there are also accusations of a pattern of zealotry on the part of authorities trying to compensate for failures over Jimmy Savile. Critics are particularly sceptical about the use of so-called “bundling” – where police make a case by wrapping together a series of weaker allegations – and some propose a statute of limitations for sexual crimes.

In the light of his acquittal – after “11 months of hell” – it is impossible not to feel for Mr Evans. The actors Bill Roache and Michael Le Vell, both of whom were also recently judged innocent of sexual offences, told similar tales of stress, humiliation and despair. Yet all the sympathy in the world cannot lead to the conclusion that these cases should never have been brought, as some now claim. Had there been an obvious insufficiency of evidence, as is suggested, then they would have been thrown out by their respective judges before reaching trial. As they were not, there was evidently a case to answer, painful though it might have been.

Mr Evans makes a more general complaint about rape trials. In the aftermath of his own seemingly unfair experiences, he is proposing that, until found guilty, defendants should be allowed the same anonymity as their accusers. As he persuasively puts it: “If my seven accusers and I walked down the street none of them would be recognised but I would.”

In an ideal world, a more equitable system has much to recommend it. But this is not an ideal world; rather, it is one where there are approaching 100,000 rapes annually but fewer than a fifth make it far enough into the system to be registered as a crime, and less than 3 per cent of those go all the way to a conviction. Not only is the number of false allegations vanishingly small, the high incidence of unreported sexual assaults is a consequence of victims thinking that they will not be believed. Concerned as one might be for Mr Evans et al, they are but a tiny minority. To tilt the balance in their favour – whether via anonymity or a statute of limitations – is to tilt it away from tens of thousands of genuine victims against whom the scales already feel almost insurmountably weighted.

Finally, there is the question of cost to be considered – and here the concerns are well-founded. Mr Evans is ineligible for legal aid because he earns more than £37,500, and has therefore been left with bills of £130,000. He may be innocent, but his life savings have been swallowed up, nonetheless. The injustice is plain. But so is the irony of complaints from an MP who, by his own admission, “might well” have voted for the most recent, damaging cuts. Amid the near-impossible sensitivities surrounding sexual crime, the existing system is as fair to the accused as it can be. The devastation of subsidised defence is not. If Mr Evans’s experiences can be used to stay the axe, they will be put to good use.