The Lawyer 2B Union Debate: Should suspects accused of serious crimes be granted anonymity?

Should suspects accused of serious crimes be granted anonymity?

YES

Shulamit Morris-Evans
Shulamit Morris-Evans

Of course those accused of serious crimes should be granted anonymity, the operative word here being ‘accused’.

British law has a venerable tradition of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and the presumption of innocence in criminal cases is a sine qua non of a just legal system and an article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No legal condemnation can be meted out to someone unless they have been proved to be guilty. So far, so crystal clear.

But we veer off into murkier waters when we come to social condemnation. Serious crimes tend to be emotive, and thus attention grabbing – ideal fodder for the sensationalist tendencies of many newspapers, social networks and particularly juicy morsels of gossip.

The problem with this is that social condemnation can be premature or misplaced. And it is much harder to shake off – a question mark often persists about the character of the accused. Imagine trying to live your life, to get a job or sustain a relationship if you had to contend with a public accusation of terrible acts you did not commit. Such a scenario is deeply traumatic for those involved, and, unfortunately, is not fictitious.

Three reasons might be offered against granting anonymity.

The first, that it is more trouble than the suspect is worth, is invalid – the more damning the charge, the greater the need for anonymity unless it has been proven. 

The second, that public allegations encourage potential witnesses to come forward, especially in cases of rape, diverts attention from the obstacles to victims’ accusation in the first place – discrimination, misinformation and fear should be destroyed, not the reputation of a potential innocent.

Finally, the third, that to conceal their identity is to leave other individuals vulnerable, is misconceived: if a suspect is deemed to pose a risk to society they will be kept in custody until their trial. In any other situation they are, as is their fundamental human right, innocent until proven guilty.

Shulamit Morris-Evans is a second-year Classics undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge.

NO

Rebecca New
Rebecca New

Prosecuting serious crime is hard. And so it should be. Notwithstanding police investigation, interviews, forensics and all the other evidence required for the CPS to take the decision to charge, the final hurdle is in the courtroom – guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. 

Does this mean that some criminals will literally get away with murder? Probably. But one of the ways we can try and prevent this is by releasing the names of suspects. A name or a picture can be all it takes to jog the memory of a crucial witness. The number of successful appeals on the television programme Crimewatch can attest to this, which in 2009 claimed responsibility for 57 murder and 53 rape convictions.

Those in favour of anonymity point to the vilification of the innocent, to ‘trial by media’. But this is not an argument against open justice. Rather, it is an argument about the way in which the press choose to report serious crime. The Leveson Inquiry addressed this in the light of evidence given by people like Chris Jefferies, wrongly accused in 2010 of the murder of Joanna Yeates. Here, it is apparent that the media – and not the criminal justice system – is in need of reform. 

Transparency is fundamental to the justice system. If the public are not able to see justice being done, how can they be expected to have confidence in its administration? 

That is not to say all suspects should be named. The High Court recently awarded one such suspect, a Mr Crook, £70,000 in damages when he sued Essex Police for placing his name on a ‘10 Most Wanted’ list following a rape allegation. But provided it is ‘necessary and proportionate’ to do so, transparency must prevail over anonymity. 

Rebecca New graduated from King’s College London in 2014 with an LLB in Law and European Legal Studies and is now a part-time BPTC student at the University of Law.

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The “Lawyer 2B Union Debate” competitions are designed to allow students to demonstrate their written skills, persuasive powers and commercial awareness. Thanks to everyone who entered this one, and congratulations to the winners. Look out for the next competition in the series soon.

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