Friday, August 22, 2014

The anonymity debate

This was not the blog I sat down to write, that’ll come in a couple of weeks. 
This blog was instead prompted by recent events and news on the evening of Monday 18th August 2014 in the UK. Last week Sir Cliff Richard’s house was searched by the police in regard to sexually inappropriate offences that took place in the 1970’s, while that may have been challenging for some to accept that was not the main furore; the police tipped of the BBC, who recorded the whole “raid” live, and did not inform Cliff (Daily Mail). Both sides are blaming the other and claiming that they themselves were not in the wrong (the independent). Reaction has condemned the Police and the BBC (Yorkshire postTelegraph), and society (the independent); however, people came forward with allegations against Cliff [London evening Standard]. The whole event has left an uneasy feeling.
The ITV News (one of the main news broadcasters'in the UK) on 18th August 2014, commissioned a poll to look at public attitudes to anonymity for sexual abuse defendants prior to being deemed guilty by a court [ITV News],  which is a hotly debated issue raised a number of times in the press (Huffington Post;The Scotsman) and in parliament (House of Commons - Home Affairs - Fifth Reportthe independent), as well as by defendants (ITV news). Part of the explanation for the argument for anonymity is because sexual abuse allegations are so stigmatic and tend to linger in the public mind set regardless of whether the defendant is found not guilty or not (i.e., “no smoke without fire”). The ITV poll found that 74% believed that people facing sexual abuse allegations should receive anonymity prior to a guilty verdict.
This debate is not a straightforward one, it is exceptionally complex one with a number of  interested as well as invested players; the aim of this blog is not to answer the question but to prompt debate and reflection. Some of the main arguments, as I can see them, are from;
Victim – Identifying there defendant gives credence to the victim in the sense that it recognises and validates their abuse claims; it shows them that the criminal justice system is taking them seriously and in doing so it helps them in their journey for justice. It progresses the fight for victims rights. However, outing the defendant can sometimes out the victim, especially if they are vulnerable (i.e., victims of child sexual abuse have anonymity in the UK and there have been cases where poor reporting has resulted in the victim’s identity being outed) and make them feel vulnerable, under pressure pre-trial.
Defendant –The identification of the defendant means that those others around them are aware of their offences, potentially stopping them going underground, making sure that they stick to their pre-trial arrangements, preventing them from reoffending and/or making sure that they do not approach the victim. In addition, other defendants get named in other offences, why should sexual abuse be any different? But sexual abuse has a massive social stigma attached that negatively impacts the defendant, regardless of guilt or the court’s decision, which can impact their current and future lives (i.e., jobs, family life, etc) (ITV news), affecting their mental health and (potentially) increasing their potential risk as well as dangerousness to themselves and/or others. Interestingly, we spend so much academic and professional time discussing community notification post release, forgetting that we notify the community and disclosure their information pre-trial.
Criminal Justice System - This one is most complex position as there is a requirement to protect the public balanced against upholding victims’ rights, defendant’s rights and the integrity of the case (i.e., not to negatively impact the outcome of the case in court or in getting to court through inappropriate procedural behaviour). In short, maintaining the “innocent until proven guilty” aspect of the criminal justice system regardless of related social, personal or professional attitudes. Sexual abuse cases generally fall within a punishment paradigm which means that the core tenants of the criminal justice system can be diametrically opposed, rather than work in tandem.
As I said at the beginning this is a complex issue with no straight forward answer, there are a lot of involved, interested and concerned parties. I for one am not suggesting any distinct course of action, but instead saying that the identification of sexual assault defendants pre-trial outcome has consequences on them, their families, their victims and the criminal justice system: if we are reframing the sexual abuse debate we should look at all angles of it, including this one, regardless of how it makes us feel.
 Kieran McCartan, PhD

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