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One is loth to get into the business of censorship, although that is what anonymity for the victim may be said to be. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. McCartney has had no redress through the Press Complaints Commission for what happened. Perhaps
some guidance on the style of reporting is not appropriate, but we can certainly encourage greater press responsibility.
The last detailed examination of the issue was by the Home Affairs Committee in 2003. Its nuanced conclusions were that, with numerous arguments on either side, for and against, the balance rested with anonymity for the accused prior to but not after charge. I believe that, on the basis of the experience of Mr. McCartney and others like him, we need to reconsider that. Surely it cannot be right that an innocent man can be subjected to such treatment and we do nothing about it. The Government have made it clear in parliamentary answers that they consider that the principle of open justice is right and should continue to underpin the British system of jurisprudence.
By and large, I agree. Any deviation from this principle would to some extent be undesirable, were it not for the special considerations applying in sex offence cases. The rationale for the introduction of anonymity for complainants, as recommended by the Heilbron committee in 1976, was that special consideration should be given to complainants because of the public humiliation that occurred when they were named. That would obviously act as a deterrent to bringing proceedings, but the humiliation for complainants is not too dissimilar from that which the accused face. Is it not the case that defendants in sexual assault cases deserve at least some protection from the media? That may be particularly so with celebrities, who are especially vulnerable in these circumstances to press coverage and sensationalism.
Of course, the counter-argument is, where does one draw the line? If a person has his or her reputation ruined by scurrilous accusations of, for example, dishonesty, and they are plastered all over the press, why should they not benefit from the chance to clear their name behind closed doors, instead of having trial by media? The answer lies in the special nature of sex offences. It is possible to argue, from the same starting point as the Heilbron committee, that the special circumstances that justify, in part, anonymity for complainants should apply equally to the accused. Some would say that we cannot legislate against the medias obsessive coverage of anything to do with sex. That may be so, but we need to look at whether the scales of justice are correctly balanced. Here, we may draw a comparison with Sweden, where anonymity plays a much greater part in the justice system.
It can, I think, be argued that sex cases are different, for a number of reasons. First, they are usually dependent on the word of the accuser rather than that of the accused, and often involve an incident that, by definition, is private. Secondly, there is a large body of evidence, and history, of false accusations in such cases. Thirdly, they are not necessarily like robbery or fraud, for example, where there is hard evidence of an offence that is demonstrably provable one way or the other. Fourthly, they are particularly damaging to character and susceptible to newspaper hysteria.
Government responses to the various questions that I tabled by and large suggest no change to the current situation, but it simply cannot be right or fair that a loving father and devoted husband, his wife of 24 years, Rowena, and his family should go through all this. Mr. McCartney was going out as an innocent man to an
innocent event, but at the conclusion of that evening he was put through hell in a case that is without substance. That could happen to any of us in similar circumstances.
Talking of anonymity for the accused may well lend itself to much theoretical argument on causes and effects, possible scenarios and so forth, but we do have a precedent for the working of such a provision in practice. I have come to learn that, following the introduction of an amendment to the Wilson Governments sexual offences legislation, between 1976 and 1988 it was illegal for defendants to be identified in rape cases. That legislation provided for anonymity for complainants for the first time, and the amendment was a direct challenge to the Heilbron committees recommendations. Nevertheless, the chief reason for the repeal of the amendment in 1988 was, as I understand it, representations from the police to the effect that keeping the defendants identity from the public discouraged victims from coming forward. I have to say, however, that there was no big increase in the number of convictions as a result of the reversion to the pre-1976 position for the accused.
I am not asking for a return to the situation before 1988, and I recognise that in serial rape cases, for example, there may well be an advantage in naming the accused, so that witnesses can come forward and the culprit can more easily be brought to justice. Given that the provisions that existed in the 1970s and 1980s extended only as far as accusations of rape, they would not have made a blind bit of difference in my constituents case.
We should doubtless be careful to avoid any alterations that would have a detrimental effect on the police and the Crown Prosecution Services capacity to bring offenders to justice. It may also be that a case-by-case examination of the public benefits to be gained by the identification of the defendant would have legal and cost pitfalls. Perhaps we can have complete anonymitybut if we cannot, a graduated response may be needed, with complete anonymity being given to, for example, those accused of lesser sexual offences. I recognise that no such offence is inconsequential, but perhaps some could be defined as lesser if the evidence is less substantial. Most people would agree, with cases such as that of the former Southampton manager Dave Jones in mind, that there should be some semblance of equality between the accused and the accusers in such cases.
Mr. McCartney is to collect signatures for a petition for his anonymity for both, or A 4 B, campaign. This is not a party matter. The positions of the Opposition and the Government have been roughly the same for some time. I think, however, that the time is ripe for a comprehensive re-examination of the issues. I accept that there may be no clear answer. But it cannot be acceptable that innocent people should go through the ordeal of a character assassination that can do long-term and deep harm, while we simply say that nothing can be done. We should avoid allowing anybody else to be as trapped in a nightmare and as helpless as Mike McCartney was.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) on his success in securing this debate. I pay
tribute to the measured way in which, as always, he set out his case, and I know that he takes his constituents issues to heart.
It has long been established that criminal trials should take place in open court and be freely reported. Open justice remains a central tenet of our criminal justice system, which should be open and transparent, and the media should not be prevented from reporting what has taken place publicly in court. My hon. Friend referred to the behaviour of the media towards his constituent, and I have sympathy with many of the issues that he raised about responsible reporting. He will be aware of the guidance to editors in such matters from the Association of Chief Police Officers media group and the Press Complaints Commission.
It is the openness and transparency that engenders confidence in the system and encourages victims and witnesses to come forward. It also requires that defendants in criminal trials are not allowed to remain anonymous. That is the background to our debate today.
My hon. Friend refers specifically to the case of his constituent, Mr. Mike McCartney. As my hon. Friend said, he has tabled several written questions about this case for answer by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, and I know that he has met him recently to discuss it. It would not, therefore, be helpful for me to comment further on the many serious issues that my hon. Friend raised on the specific case, so I will return to the central point about anonymity.
As my hon. Friend said, there is indeed a history to the question of defendant anonymity. The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 provided for a ban on the press identification of both complainants and defendants in rape cases. It is important to stress, however, that that legislation, as originally introduced into Parliament, made no provision for defendant anonymity. The Bill on introduction was based on a 1975 report by the Heilbron committee, and I would stress at this point that the committee did not consider that defendants in rape cases should have anonymity. It was, in fact, only during the Bills passage through Parliament that it was amended to provide for the anonymity of defendants in sex offence cases.
In 1984, the criminal law revision committee in its report on sexual offences looked at the subject in broad outline. It endorsed the reasoning of the Heilbron committee that led to complainants in rape cases being granted anonymity to encourage them to come forward. Importantly, it also agreed with the arguments of the Heilbron committee against giving anonymity to defendants in rape cases. It felt that rape was but one of many offences in which a defendant who is acquitted may nevertheless suffer damage to his reputation. It felt that the tit-for-tat argumentthat the man should be granted anonymity because the woman has itwas not valid, despite its superficial attractiveness.
Following the criminal law revision committees work, anonymity for defendants in sexual offence cases was abolished by the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The legal position is therefore settled. In the almost 20 years since the 1988 Act, the position has been considered by
successive Governments of different political complexions. They have all taken the view that providing anonymity for defendants would not be the right approach.
As a matter of principle, defendants charged with different kinds of crime should be treated alike. It would be a mistake to allow anonymity to one class of defendant but not another, on the basis of the reputational damage that might be suffered because of the nature of the offence. Nor do I accept the specific argument that defendants in cases of sexual crimes should benefit from anonymity whereas other defendants should not, as people may be accused of other very serious offences, such as murder, for example.
Furthermore, sexual crime is only one of the many types of offence that defendants may argue will cause them reputational damage. Some people might claim to have suffered reputational damage from being charged with a common offence like dishonesty or theft. The principle is that all defendants should be treated alike, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South recognises that it is far from clear where one should draw the line.
It is sometimes argued that defendants in sex cases should be granted anonymity on the grounds that the complainants in such cases have it, but that is not comparing like with like. Anonymity for complainants is important in encouraging victims to come forward and thus preventing criminals from escaping justice. There is a specific reason for it, whereas the tit-for-tat argument that the defendant should have anonymity because the complainant does was rejected by the Heilbron committee.
It is also worth noting that defendant anonymity gave rise to practical difficulties during the period when it was the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South touched on that when he mentioned that the police made representations about defendant anonymity before it was abolished by the Criminal Justice Act 1988. For example, if a man escaped custody before conviction, the police could not warn the public that he was a suspected rapist unless the judge lifted reporting restrictions. One would clearly want to avoid any possibility of such a thing happening, and that is a further, practical, argument against granting anonymity.
My hon. Friend concentrated his comments on the position after charge when there is evidence of guilt. At that point, reporting is normally unrestricted, and I note in passing that we believe that investigations into allegations of sex offences should be conducted without publicity before charge. A system of guidance devised by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Press Complaints Commission currently regulates pre-charge publicity. That guidance was recently reviewed, and we believe that it is operating satisfactorily.
I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will understand why I am not persuaded that it would be right to reopen this matter. I do not dispute that on some occasions, defendants in criminal cases do feel discomfited by the publicity to which they are exposed.
As so often, this is a question of where the right balance lies among competing arguments; in the case of defendant anonymity, it clearly lies with the public interest in open justice.
However, I agree that there are questions relating to the case raised by my hon. Friend that should be brought to the attention of my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General. I know that my hon. Friend will
take the matter forward, and I look forward to seeing how he does so. He has explained his constituents position, and I assure him that I am prepared to listen to any further representations that he wishes to make. I shall be happy to meet him in due course, if he feels that that would be appropriate.